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Mental Health Awareness is Important. But Funding is Imperative.

COVID-19 has revealed the scale of our global mental health crisis. But are we willing to invest in the solutions to address it?

By Rabih Torbay

The spotlight that COVID-19 has shined on our global mental health crisis has been a long time coming, particularly for health care workers. For them, the “new normal” of living with COVID-19 is not normal at all — it is a grueling rhythm of anxiety, grief, insomnia, and depression that they are forced to confront day in and day out.

The surge in the delta variant has reminded us just how vulnerable health care workers are to the mental health effects of their job. More than half of those responding to COVID-19 have experienced mental health issues. It is crucial that we understand their burden, listen to their stories, and work to end the stigma of mental health care.

But it is even more important that we act.

Prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health — nowhere near the amount required to meet the need. COVID-19 has made the problem worse. A 2020 World Health Organization survey of 130 countries found significant pandemic-related disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children, older adults, and women. More than a third of the countries surveyed reported disruptions to emergency interventions like seizures and withdrawals, while nearly that many reported disruptions to medications for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders.

This is no longer a problem we cannot identify — nearly 90% of the countries in the WHO survey said that mental health was in their COVID-19 response plans. The problem is we are not willing to pay for it: Of that 90%, only 17% had the funding to actually do it.

As the WHO points out, international funders must also do more. Mental health receives less than 1% of international aid earmarked for health, even though we know that mental health is inseparable from a person’s physical health. On a recent trip to Sudan — which struggles with conflict and displacement, along with regular outbreaks of cholera, dengue fever, malaria, and other deadly diseases — one of the first things my hosts told me was that there were no mental health services available. We heard the same thing after the 2020 Port of Beirut explosion in Lebanon.

We can say that mental health is health — and it is vital that we do. But we won’t show that we believe it until mental health is considered part of a person’s primary health care package and funded to reflect it.

And that starts with those who provide the care.

Last year, Project HOPE began a pilot project to provide mental health and resiliency trainings for health care workers in Indonesia and the Dominican Republic. With support from the Abbott Fund, we were able to reach hundreds of health care workers in their local languages, many of whom had never openly discussed emotional or psychological issues.

These trainings gave health care workers a place to talk openly about burnout, exhaustion, and compassion fatigue — topics not traditionally considered part of international aid. But the impact was clear.

One participant in the Dominican Republic described her experience this way:

“I feel so fortunate, because despite this global situation we are going through, there is light — and not just any light, but a powerful light. We have to understand that we are human. Through this course I realized that my stress and my anxiety are normal, but if I do not accept them, I can fall into crisis. But if I know they are happening, I can accept that I need to decompress and understand that everything I give and have given can affect me. I will be able to heal or help more people by helping and strengthening myself.”

We have since built on this work thanks to other valuable partners like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which is supporting mental health and resiliency trainings on five continents, and the Medtronic Foundation, which is supporting additional mental health and resiliency trainings in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Because of these investments, tens of thousands of health care workers will have the tools they need to safeguard their own mental health and provide better care to those in their communities. We’ve also begun providing mental health support as part of our emergency responses and included a mental health specialist on our initial Emergency Response Team that deployed to Haiti after the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August.

COVID-19 may have revealed the scale of our mental health crisis, but it did not create it. It’s on all of us — NGOs, governments, donors, and the international community — to show that we are willing to do something about it. Spotlighting mental health is an important first step. But investing in it will show how committed we are to actually changing the narrative.

Rabih Torbay is President and CEO of Project HOPE.

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