To address the "devastating effect" of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) recommends including mental health care in health insurance and redirecting budget allocations from psychiatric hospitals to community-based services.
Those responsible for an PAHO research published in the Lancet Regional Health point out that the most increased disorders were anxiety and depression, while one third of COVID-19 patients were diagnosed with a neurological or mental problem.
This evaluation coincides with those of other sources and experts consulted by Scidev.net, which reveal a further erosion of cognitive resources and an increase in the rates of domestic violence in the region, particularly against women and children, exacerbating the rates of Latin American violence, which already tripled the world average.
According to PAHO, mental health systems should be immediately strengthened, focusing on primary care, education and social services, as well as training non-specialized workers in the detection and management of mental disorders, and improving the infrastructure of telemedicine services.
As the virus affects the central nervous system, it is expected that a proportion of people will also be compromised in this regard, they explained to Scidev.net in an institutional email from the agency's Communications Department.
The pandemic, according to research by the Lancet, has contributed to the exacerbation of mental health symptoms among those suffering from pre-existing conditions. This places them "in a group of greater vulnerability, such as people with diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases," PAHO sources add.
A year after the pandemic began, 45 percent of adults in the Americas already reported deterioration in their mental and emotional health.
At a time when treatments are more necessary than ever, the body is concerned that-between January and March this year-interruptions in mental health services have been detected in 60% of countries.
This emergency is exacerbated by weak social protection mechanisms, fragmented health systems and deep inequalities.
"Mental health spending in the region, which averages 2 percent of the total on health, is often inadequate," the publication points out, adding that 61 percent of this percentage is allocated to psychiatric hospitals.
The report mentions four countries in the region that conducted studies and published the results, but PAHO sources told Scidev.net that "so far it is not possible to compare them with other countries."
In Peru, the prevalence of depressive symptoms (34.9 percent) during the 2020 quarantine was five times higher than in 2018.
Rates of depression (61 per cent) and anxiety (44 per cent) in Brazil were also high, as were symptoms of post-traumatic stress (28 per cent) in Mexico.
In Argentina, another study found that the most important variable related to depressive symptoms (reported by 33 percent of respondents) was feelings of loneliness.
"when they become chronic, they feel such a big disconnection that they Don't even register," Adrián Yoris, one of the authors of the work, explains on the phone, unlinked to PAHO. "this has a direct impact on states of depression, anxiety and (in severe cases) suicide."
Researchers also recorded "marked cognitive wear", with low scores for variables such as concentration, memory and processing speed, and high for mental fatigue, tiredness and sleep. Repeating their measurements 72 days later, they found that there was no direct correlation between moods and the different moments of the pandemic.
The initial reaction had raised the values of different mental health symptoms. Although later COVID-19 contagion multiplied, these figures remained stable. Some even decreased.
"we people process the information by exaggerating the risk in the face of the unknown and potentially aggressive. Over time, this dynamic cannot be sustained and alternative data, such as vaccine effectiveness, begin to be incorporated, "Yoris explains.
With regard to mental health disorders, "the hardest hit were those under 26 years of age, whose daily life used to be markedly social," confirms the neuroscientist.
As of March 2020, more than 154 million children in the region were out of school due to the pandemic. A year later, 114 million had not yet returned, according to the United Nations.
In addition to changes in learning and socialization, minors have experienced adversity in their families. Telephone helpline records and police reports from various countries in the region indicate an increase in cases of domestic violence.
Yoris argues that strengthening communication campaigns is another key recommendation. "whether in relation to vaccines or shingles, we usually decide how to behave on the basis of previous beliefs," he recalls.
Responsible government and media communication, capable of altering misperceptions, emerges as well as one of the major challenges for the future.
> Enlace al informe de la OPS en The Lancet