PAHO approves new regional strategy to improve mental health

WASHINGTON – The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) on Wednesday approved a new regional strategy aimed at improving mental health and suicide prevention in the America, including the Caribbean and mobilising resources to respond to the demand for care.

Delegates attending the PAHO 60th Directing Council meeting said the new strategy responds to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the increased prevalence of mental health problems and related disruptions in essential services.

The “Strategy for Improving Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the Region of the Americas,” aims to guide PAHO member states in their efforts through an equity- and rights-based approach to mental health care, taking into account the national context, needs and priorities.

“Even before the pandemic, we were already facing a significant burden of mental illnesses with inadequate care for those affected, which was further exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic. This strategy aims to support countries to prioritise mental health by integrating it into all policies,” said Dr Anselm Hennis, PAHO’s director of the Department of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health.

According to the document, the pandemic has worsened pre-existing mental health conditions, such as major depressive and anxiety disorders, which increased by 35 and 32 per cent, respectively during 2020 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The most recent data show that each year almost 100 000 people die by suicide in the Americas, making it the only World Health Organization (WHO) region where the suicide rate is on the rise.

Women, young people, indigenous populations, Afro-descendants, and members of other ethnic groups, as well as people living in poverty and those with pre-existing mental health disorders, are among the most severely affected.

PAHO said despite the high costs associated with mental health issues and suicides in the region, care is not always prioritised, and the funding for addressing mental health is insufficient, with only a small fraction of national health budgets, around three per cent allocated to this area.

The regional strategy establishes six lines of action to address this issue.

They include building mental health leadership, governance, and multi-sectoral partnerships, and integrate mental health in all policies; improving  the availability, accessibility, and quality of community-based services for mental health conditions, and support the advance of deinstitutionalisation and advancing mental health promotion and prevention strategies and activities throughout the life course.

In addition it calls for reinforcing the integration of mental health and psychosocial support in emergency contexts; strengthening data, evidence, and research and making suicide prevention a national whole-of-government priority and build multi-sectoral capacity to respond to people affected by suicidal behaviours.

In June 2023, the PAHO High-Level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19  published its final report on how to move forward on mental health in the region, whose recommendations underpin the new strategy. (CMC)

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