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Are we prepared for COVID-19’s threat to mental health?

To say the current COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions of people is an understatement. Worldwide lockdowns, social distancing, isolation for the elderly and vulnerable, job losses, health fears, and grief, all have taken their toll on the global population. But at what cost to people’s mental health? The world was unprepared for the damage COVID-19 […]

To say the current COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions of people is an understatement. Worldwide lockdowns, social distancing, isolation for the elderly and vulnerable, job losses, health fears, and grief, all have taken their toll on the global population. But at what cost to people’s mental health?

The world was unprepared for the damage COVID-19 has caused. It is fair to say the world is perhaps even less prepared for the mental health pandemic that will arise after the immediate threat of COVID-19 has gone.

A mental health time bomb — the next pandemic

Whilst governments around the world are busy trying to prop up their economies in the hope of avoiding an inevitable global recession, the population has been left to their own devices to overcome the stress and anxiety the virus has caused to their lives.

Even before COVID-19, the number of people suffering from mental health issues was at an all-time high, with 87% of the global population affected by mental health challenges either first or second-hand.

As COVID-19 cases and job losses rise, 45% of adults report their mental health has been affected, according to a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the United States. This figure represents a 13% rise in mental health issues in just a few short weeks.

These results are similar to the results from the Sentio Solutions COVID-19 Mental Health survey conducted April 14–21, 2020, where more than 60% of Americans surveyed said that their current mental health state is worse or much worse now as opposed to before the COVID-19 crisis. Stress and anxiety about the future and worry about family members getting sick were the top concerns of those surveyed.

This rise in mental health issues has also been noted by the Disaster Distress Helpline at SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), where they have seen an 891% increase in calls since the global crisis began.

A devastating impact — we need to be prepared this time

Mental health will be the next pandemic, and the time to act is now so that we are not caught off-guard like how it happened with COVID-19.

Experts suggest that waves of COVID-19 infections are likely, with subsequent lockdowns. If mental health issues keep rising as lockdowns and social distancing continue to happen, hundreds of millions will suffer. This will result in a much bigger strain being put on limited healthcare resources than the current virus. Demand already outstrips supply as a shortage of therapists means individuals are experiencing up to 4 months delay to receive treatment.

The world must get ready, anticipate the inevitable and be fully prepared to act and support people’s mental health, because it won’t just be people who already experience mental health issues that will be affected. Everyone will potentially be at risk; the elderly, people facing diseases, parents, people who lost their jobs, etc.

Depression is already the number one cause of disability worldwide, accounting for up to 400 million lost work days per year, with mental health and substance abuse alone costing US businesses $80- $100 billion annually.

How will this surge in demand for mental health support be met?

Mental health should not be neglected, nor should it be considered a luxury, because it is proven that if left untreated, the cost to governments, employers and insurance companies billions of dollars in medical claims. Currently people with mental health conditions make six times more emergency room visits versus the overall population. They submit two to four times as many medical claims with people suffering from depression submitting an average of $14,967 per year in claims, compared to $5,929 per year for the total population.

It’s a sad fact that individuals suffering from anxiety or depression have a 60% higher mortality rate and die an average of 8 years earlier than those who do not suffer with mental health issues.

The lack of objective data for mental health

The problem is that scaling up the availability of mental healthcare is difficult during the present crisis but more importantly mental healthcare hasn’t evolved at the pace of the rest of the healthcare sectors.

Healthcare providers have been able to use objective data to measure and track physical disorders for many years now. For example, in the diabetes community, the increased use of mobile, objective data has led to the development of web-based tools and mobile apps to help patients access the information they need to manage their condition more effectively.

However, when it comes to mental health issues, there is still a lack of continuous objective data. This is the single biggest problem facing the mental health sector but also the key to solving the crisis. Today, technological developments in artificial intelligence means it is possible to digitize mental health diagnosis and treatments, along with an ability to continuously monitor a person’s emotional state with apps and wearable technology.

When it comes to mental health issues the lack of continuous objective data is the single biggest problem facing the sector. It is, however, also the key to solving the looming crisis.

Data-driven digital therapeutic programs herald a new era for mental health

Access to telehealth solutions with real-time mental health data and remote patient monitoring can help healthcare providers ‘scale-up’ access to, and availability of mental healthcare.

In a similar way to how technology has changed the face of diabetes care, in terms of facilitation, delivery, and tracking, Sentio Solutions’ Feel programs are the starting point for a similar revolution in mental healthcare.

We are currently in the midst of both a physical and mental health crisis. Make no mistake COVID-19 and its lasting effects on our physical and mental health will be around for decades. Let’s be prepared this time!

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