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COVID-19 and Mental Health: Policy Responses and Emerging Issues- Preliminary Scan

Purpose

The lessons learned to date from COVID-19, and from earlier disasters and epidemics, suggest that planning and reforms are needed to stay ahead of mental health impacts that will be long term, complex, and may take time to fully emerge. This preliminary scan offers an overview of developing issues for policy makers and the mental health sector to consider. Over the coming months, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) will work with its key partners to provide additional policy advice in response to COVID-19, in keeping with its mission to support the mental health of people in Canada.

Methodology

Conducted between March 28 and April 14, 2020, this scan set out to identify policy considerations and emerging issues amid the first wave of COVID-19, with a focus on the unmet and anticipated needs of vulnerable populations, health-care providers, and the mental health system. The scan concentrated on the impacts we might expect to see on population mental health over the medium term as well as on existing pressure points in the mental health system. Its components included a rapid review of the academic literature, an analysis of media reports, an international scan of COVID-19 impacts and responses (including direct outreach to key informants in 20 countries), and a scan of key stakeholder perspectives and experiences in Canada (including direct responses from eight national mental health organizations and professional associations).*

Key Findings

The incredible response is leaving some people behind. A tremendously rapid and innovative response has been mounted to meet the needs of the general population by disseminating wellness information and quickly pivoting to virtual services and supports. But these offerings are not meeting the needs of some key vulnerable populations.

An opportunity exists to prepare and transform the system. The most significant impacts on mental health, substance use, and service systems are likely to be felt in the aftermath of the pandemic. Planning should begin now, including meaningful engagement with service users, so that the postpandemic system incorporates innovations (e.g., in the area of virtual service provision) while not abandoning the transformations underway before COVID-19.

Focusing on health and mental health care providers is key. Supporting and building on the mental health supports offered to front-line health-care providers and identifying the mental health requirements of mental health professionals are key to meeting their needs during and after the crisis. Focused attention on workforce planning for the post-pandemic period is also necessary to better align workforce capacity (public and private sector) with the mental health needs of the population.

The mental health impacts are delayed, complex, and long term. The lessons learned internationally from COVID-19, and from earlier disasters and epidemics, suggest that planning and reforms are important for staying ahead of mental health impacts that will be long term, complex, and may take time to fully emerge.

Fostering resiliency is important. Anticipating the increased prevalence of mental health problems and illnesses due to COVID-19 must be balanced against the risk of pathologizing normal emotional responses to an unprecedented and highly stressful situation. Mental health services and interventions that support meaning-making and post-traumatic growth and resilience will need to be available early on to buffer and protect the psychological health of people in Canada.

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