As the coronavirus pandemic shed light on the importance of mental well-being, an adviser at the World Health Organization has called for a multidisciplinary approach to tackle mental health care.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Dr. Ledia Lazeri, mental health adviser at WHO Europe, said COVID-19 made it clear “that all of us are vulnerable, and that no one of us can afford, or allow mental health to remain in the shadows.”
She said the pandemic affected everyone including young people as schools were shut down, interrupting their development; and health care professionals who had to work in overwhelming conditions, often leading to a burnout.
The elderly population was also affected since lockdowns disrupted the social connection they need.
“There is virtually no one among the general public that has not experienced a mental health problem or seen in the surroundings or in the loved ones how vulnerable each and every one of us can be,” Lazeri said.
According to her, the global health community in the last few decades has made efforts to improve mental health treatment and care, but the progress has been slower than intended.
She shared that in 2020, WHO Europe formed the Mental Health Coalition to promote mental health as a critical priority for public health.
It includes professionals such as psychologists and social workers, people with lived experiences, people with mental health conditions, their careers, organizations that work in the area of mental health.
“It is not only that we need a stronger voice for mental health, but we also need stronger arms," Lazeri said. "So, if we are together, we are able to provide this very complex answer what people with mental health conditions need ... (as) medication is only one part of a very complex treatment."
The WHO adviser said mental health care has always been "underfunded, under prioritized, and under resourced."
"We have always had across all the countries in the world, less resources than we needed for mental health,” said Lazeri, explaining why mental health stayed in the shadows for years.
Integrated to primary health care
Lazeri said mental health care is not always accessible to everyone and for making it so it "should be integrated to primary health care.”
She argued that “traditionally, psychiatric services are concentrated into highly specialized facilities" and citizens often have to travel to access those services.
“But not all citizens have the means to travel. And not all citizens are able to travel because, for instance, they might be suffering from a disability or a mental health condition. So, the response is that we need to bring the service to the citizen,” she said.
If WHO member states allow integrating mental health care into primary health care, early detection of mental health conditions can be possible since “prevention is the best cure,” Lazeri said.
“Instead of having a citizen that has developed a mental health condition, being at home alone, and going to the specialized psychiatric services, when the mental health condition has advanced, we have the chance of having the mental health condition be detected from the beginning,” she said.
Expanding the network of “community-based mental health services” is an important step for mental health care to be more accessible, said Lazeri.
“If we can have more psychiatrists in the community on the primary care level, if we can have more psychologists, more social workers, then we can surround the citizen with a package of services,” she said.
Stigma and mental health literacy
Lazeri said a leading cause of mental health care not being prioritized is stigma, a “source of hesitation on the part of the public to request mental health services.
"So very often, people with mental health conditions do not request help at all because they feel that if they do so, they will be stigmatized, and the community would not trust them any longer as valued members,” she explained.
Lazeri said one of the false beliefs people have is “once you have developed a mental health condition, you cannot be cured and your life is gone,” which is not true.
“We have modern treatments. We have a modern way, a different way of thinking about mental illness and therefore there is hope for people with mental health conditions. So that if they receive proper treatment and care, they can go back to society and live normal lives."
Asked if stigma prevents people from realizing if they have a mental condition, Lazeri said: “This is more related to literacy, to how much information is there in the community about mental illness,” because mental health conditions develop gradually and are not as visible as communicable diseases.
People often learn to live “with the suffering caused by mental illness because they don't know any better, and there is not enough information,” she said. “So, one other way of addressing stigma is to increase the information that the general public has about mental illness.”
Illustrating her point further, the WHO official said conditions such as depression and anxiety, and even schizophrenia are treatable.
“You can have very good treatment and that can allow the person to live with the disease and still have a meaningful life. But we don't know about that," she said, adding that this is why awareness of mental health and mental illnesses is of prime importance.