Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day when nations commit to act to prevent suicide in their communities and among their people. Since 2003, the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) has collaborated with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other national stakeholders to hold awareness events to mark the day.
10th September 2020 however may not be like the other years where stakeholders in suicide prevention have held big events to create awareness on suicide. This time, the call for investment is deafening. Doomsday looms. Governments have a responsibility to act now or forever have the blood of its many suicidal citizens on their heads.
COVID-19 pandemic is now the most severe and publicized human crises in recent history and will leave a deadly trail of despair and hopelessness. As of September 8, 2020, the global burden of COVID-19 has exceeded 27.3 million cases and 893,005 deaths. The International Labour Organization recently reported that more than 1.6 billion jobs could be affected overall, with over 700,000 already lost as at May 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Understandably, governments and medical professionals are focused on taking care of individuals who are very sick, while containing the coronavirus' spread in the general population. What we have failed to do, is give the needed attention to the mental health consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.
Rise in distress levels
A recent report from the WHO indicates that the impact of the pandemic on people's mental health is extremely concerning, as social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and jobs. There is rising global levels of depression and anxiety. A study in Ethiopia, in April 2020, reported a 3-fold increase in the prevalence of symptoms of depression compared to estimates from before the pandemic.
Other studies have reported significant increases in symptoms of anxiety, distress, and risk of post-traumatic stress disorder in students and health professionals. These stress-related psychiatric conditions including mood and substance use disorders are associated with suicidal behaviour. Survivors of COVID-19 have had to endure stigma. It is certainly undisputed that the COVID-19 crisis may spark a rise in suicide cases particularly after the pandemic. The mental health consequences of this disease are likely to be present for a long time. All these pointers warn of an impending danger if we do not act quickly enough. In Ghana we are seeing more mental health cases at the hospitals and more midnight calls for help against suicides.
The United Nations recently issued a policy brief on the COVID-19 pandemic which highlights the need to urgently increase investment in services for mental health or risk a massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months.
Averting the situation
To forestall the possible increase in rates of suicide in our nation, it is imperative that national leaders turn their attention to mental health and make adequate investments in the area. These investments should be able to shore up and make accessible psychosocial support systems to everyone living in any part of the nation. This can be achieved when district and sub-district mental health structures are strengthened. There should also be traditional and social media campaigns to promote mental health and reduce distress. Such levels of distress could result in suicide.
There should be investments in research, considering the fact that the corona virus disease is a novel disease with still little known about it. Commencing research into the mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is now more than needed.
Mental health investment
The effect of Covid-19 and its anticipated consequences to health, specifically mental health and the economy generally is presenting the government of Ghana yet another real opportunity to lead the continent. Ghana needs to ensure adequate and sustained funding for mental health services. The Mental Health Act lays out the legislative framework for a levy and tasks the finance minister to set up this resource to fund mental health services through parliament. This is the time to get that levy established.
Eight years into the passage of the Mental Health Act 2012, (Act 846), it is time the nation wrote its name in the annals of world history as having proactively acted to avert a swoop of suicides in the land. It is time to invest convincingly in community-based mental health services so people can access psychosocial support in these times of social and economic hardships of an unwelcome virus. Let us all add our voice to this call.
Head of Communications
Mental Health Authority