Mental Health Challenges management in Corona Outbreak; Lessons from China Experience

The writer is a Public Policy researcher
By: Arsalan Ahmed Raja

What will be the impact of Corona on mental health of health officials and general masses of Pakistan? How should the policy makers deal with this policy challenge? There are two extremely important policy questions that have been totally left out in federal and provincial cabinet sessions, press releases and it failed to even make it to the tweets of our policy makers. The first step that should be taken is collecting information through an analysis of existing research on the policy problem. Based on the learnings from this existing research and evidence a public policy response can be formulated to deal with COVID-19 adverse effects on the mental health of the health officials and generalmasses. In this regard there is a research titled “Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 on Healthcare Workers in China” by “Dr. Peter Roy-Byrne” that focuses specifically on how COVID-19 has adverse psychological impact on healthcare workers in China. It is important to note that the study highlights high rates of depression (50 %), insomnia (34%), anxiety (45%), and distress (72%) among the health officials. The study also shows that the most vulnerable to adverse psychological impacts are nurses, women and those health officials who are responsible for taking care of the COVID-19 patients. Another article that deserves a mention is “Public Mental Health Crisis during COVID-19 Pandemic, China” by a behavioral scientist “Dr. Lu Dong” and senior policy researcher “Dr. Jennifer Bouey”. This study highlights the impact of pandemic on mental health of the public and how China Government made policy interventions to curb the psychosocial adverse effects of COVID-19.

It is important to understand that China Government included these mental health protection policy interventions in the national public health response to the pandemic whereas unfortunately policy makers in Pakistan have failed to even incorporate these interventions in a policy document like a“national health action plan for COVID-19” at first place. Corona virus is the biggest challenge faced by the whole world in recent times and Pakistan is no different facing an uphill battle to stop the Corona outbreak. Apart from administrative and economic interventions it is important to incorporate the mental health of health officials and general public in national action plan on war footings making a detailed lay out plan of interventions in public health sector. The health interventions should incorporate the psychosocial adverse effects of a pandemic like COVID-19 on public health officials and general masses. There have been cases of notable suicides including a German minister committing suicide. Similarly, an Italian nurse also committed suicide due to the trauma based on her experiences with COVID-19 patients. There have been incidents of suicides in Pakistan as well. This shows that health care officials and general public including the patients or people who are affected economically or socially are quite vulnerable to the mental illness due to the COVID-19 pandemic.After a detailed study of the available researches the next step policy makers should take is to sit together and form consensus on policy actions to be taken. It is important that the federal and provincial Government along with relevant stakeholders including public health officials, thinktanks ,academic institutions , NGO’s , INGO’s and other policy actors should sit together to develop a consensus and start drafting a detailed health action plan to curb the impact of COVID-19. Unfortunately,there has been a lot of blame game and a failure of coordination between federal and provincial units with regards to the important policy actions that needs to be taken amid Corona virus outbreak. A policy consensus will result in a better policy communication and coordination to implement the formulated policies and reduce the policy gaps between policy implementation and policy formulated. It will also lead to a bridging the gap between different official and unofficial policy actors resulting in a better flow of information and a positive impact by eliminating confusion and enabling better coordination among the relevant policy implementing agencies.

What sort of policy map or action plan is important? The answer to this question is that a detailed policy guidance that clearly answers how the resources will be mobilized and how they will be coordinated. It also answers what type of policy interventions are designed and who will be responsible to deliver these interventions. Pakistan lacks a well-established healthcare system and neither known to have a great health response system when it comes to health interventions during crisis especially psychological crisis interventions however it is important to learn from the China experience and design as well as implement these policy interventions as soon as possible to win the war against Corona virus. The policy or road map should also consider all the possible challenges in successful implementation of the health interventions including psychological crisis interventions. The biggest challenge when it comes to psychological interventions is the shortage of psychiatrists countrywide which are unevenly distributed in the health care system.

The studies mentioned above highlights that a possible successful psychological policy intervention to deal with COVID-19 adverse impact will be the use of telemedicine. Telemedicine can be a great possible intervention considering the widespread use of smart phones. It is also important to raise awareness about mental illness and the possible impact of COVID-19 on mental health among masses so that they understand the need to consult the telemedicine services. The services provided should be easily accessible and available either free or at a very nominal charge. The World Health Organization has shared a policy guidance to address mental health challenges that Government should also take into consideration while preparing a well-coordinated strategy and response.
It is important to understand that Federal and Provincial Governments are making policy plans to suppress the impact of COVID-19 however all plans will fail if there is lack of coordination between the center and provinces. The federal Government should lead the way and use a centralized policy approach, but all the provinces leaderships should be taken into consensus to avoid confusion. Yes, it is totally important to focus on the economic impact of the crisis however it is equally important to incorporate plan to counter mental illness in national health action plan as quickly as possible since that will be critical in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 in the longer run. These psychological interventions should not be ignored and become part of all health action plans to protect the mental health of public health officials and general masses. Ultimately the war against corona can be win through a well-coordinated action plans not by mere speeches, press releases and tweets which seems to be current focus of our policy makers in Pakistan.

The writer is a Public Policy researcher and a consultant on media, trade and health. He can be reached at [email protected]