The coronavirus pandemic could cause a global ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems worse than the 2008 financial crash, Harvard scientists have warned.
Staff at the leading American university said that the long list of worries people are having to cope with during the coronavirus crisis is making existing mental health problems worse.
And they fear the world may see a rise in suicides and substance abuse similar to that seen after the 2008 recession, when there was a wave of so- called ‘deaths of despair’.
Professor Vikram Patel, at Harvard University in the US, said: "Mental health problems were already a leading cause of suffering and the most neglected health issue globally before the pandemic.
"The pandemic will, through worsening the social determinants of mental health, fuel a worsening of this crisis.
"There are so many issues which affect large sections of the population, including worries about jobs and income security, social exclusion, school closures and working from home creating huge pressure on families.
"There are also disruptions to medical services and care, potential domestic violence situations, and the varying levels of fear people have of being infected by this new virus."
Government help needed
He claimed that dealing with the "tsunami" of post-pandemic mental health problems will require huge levels of government intervention.
Professor Patel said: "The 2008 recession, which largely affected only the US, was followed by a wave of 'deaths of despair' in the USA, driven by suicide and substance use.
"Without huge levels of government support for both the mental health sector and a whole host of other sectors, we are tragically facing a repeat of this, but perhaps on a much greater scale."
Around 800 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide each year, 16 million of those are in the UK.
The number is expected to rise as people struggle to deal with the added everyday social and economic pressure brought on by the killer virus.
But despite the stark warnings, Professor Patel said the pandemic could also be an opportunity to address some of the mental health sector's deep rooted issues.
He said: “The pandemic presents a historic opportunity to reimagine mental health care, by realising the science which demonstrates that we must reframe mental health beyond a narrow focus on 'diagnoses, doctors and drugs'."
The findings will be presented at the ESCMID Conference on Coronavirus Disease.