Critical funding gaps are halting and disrupting crucial mental health services in Africa as demand for these services rises amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization’s Africa office said Thursday. 

In a statement, WHO Africa said a survey of 28 African countries was undertaken as part of the first global examination of the devastating impact of the coronavirus on access to mental health services.

“It underscores the urgent need for increased funding. Of the countries responding in the African region, 37% reported that their COVID-19 mental health response plans are partially funded and a further 37% reported having no funds at all,” it said.

The statement came days ahead of World Mental Health Day, which is observed annually on Oct. 10 to raise awareness and mobilize efforts in support of psychological and emotional well-being.

“Isolation, loss of income, the deaths of loved ones and a barrage of information on the dangers of this new virus can stir up stress levels and trigger mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, was quoted in the statement as saying.

She said the coronavirus pandemic has shown, more than ever, how mental health is integral to health and well-being and must be an essential part of health services during all outbreaks and emergencies.

The statement said African countries account for 15 of the top 30 countries globally for suicide per 100,000 people and this comes as the COVID-19 pandemic increases demand for mental health services.

While there is scant data on how COVID-19 is increasing mental health conditions on the African continent, it said a study in South Africa found that 10%-20% of the 220 people surveyed reported potent experiences of anxiety and fear as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Another survey of 12,000 women in low-income communities in Uganda and Zambia found an increase in persistent stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

The WHO urged African governments to set up counselling helplines and increase training for key health responders in basic psychosocial skills.

“COVID-19 is adding to a long-simmering mental healthcare crisis in Africa. Leaders must urgently invest in life-saving mental healthcare services,” Moeti said.

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