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COVID -19 and Mental Health: Psychosocial Considerations for Vulnerable Populations

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

On 9th July 2020 Young Leaders for Health (YLH) hosted its first webinar on the topic of COVID-19 and Mental Health: psychosocial considerations for vulnerable populations to commence the webinar series ‘COVID-19 & the burden of Mental Health: lessons learned, and ways to strengthen our response to improve health for all’.

Claudia Batz, Coordinator of the YLH Webinar Series welcomed all participants and speakers, introducing the webinar series, which has the aim to provide students and young professionals with the latest evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and how to address it. The first webinar focused on mental health and the role of equity and gender.

Aiysha Malik, Technical Officer of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization provided an overview of mental health and common mental health disorders. She emphasized that individuals who do not necessarily have a mental health diagnosis, may experience distress and certain mental health issues. Especially during the current pandemic, mental health can be impacted by any combination of stressors (economic hardships, relationships etc.). Some populations are even more likely to experience enhanced stress during the pandemic. These populations include health workers, older adults, people living with health conditions, young people, women, and people living in humanitarian complex settings. “Frontline health workers, first responders and people working in long term care homes are in enormous risk of distress at the moment.”, Aiysha Malik said.

Priscilla Dudhia, policy officer at Women for Refugee Women, underlined that “Asylum-seeking women, particularly those who have been refused asylum, are at high risk of deteriorating mental health during the pandemic.” A recent study by Women for Refugee Women revealed that during the pandemic women were hungry, homeless, or sharing rooms with non-family, they did not have access to water, soap or hygiene products. The majority said that mental health has worsened flashbacks (flashback = re-experiencing traumatic events in the form of uncontrolled thoughts, images). Finally, there were serious barriers to accessing NHS mental health care.

Further to this, Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Women in Global Health (WGH), spoke about the Operation 50/50 Campaign, launched by WGH in response to the lack of female leadership in initial COVID-19 responses. She explained: “We know that the physical equipment for the pandemic has been designed for male bodies and female bodies are not fitting. We also know that many of the front-line community health workers today around the world do not have any PPE (COVID-19 Personal Protective Equipment).” Since women make up the majority of the health workforce, they should be getting represented in the Health Security Discussion. Roopa Dhatt emphasized that “We need to make sure that the psychosocial and mental needs of everybody involved are addressed, both from a patient perspective but also from a provider and health workforce.”

YLH members also actively contributed to the discussions. Alexandra Lanzetta discussed her recently published article ‘Inequalities are Killing Black Americans in the United States’. Black Americans are almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than the rest of the population. The reason for this disproportionate rate in COVID-19 infection is systematic racism that is present in the United States of America. Alexandra Lanzetta also highlighted that “The only way this unjust system is going to end is by educating oneself and others and supporting policy changes.”

Following the speaker presentations, the panelists engaged in a discussion about how the pandemic changed their perspectives on mental health and its significance within the work of their organizations. They also discussed what we can do now to encourage governments to act on the inequalities and the importance of mental health, which has been highlighted during the presentations.

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