The scientific brief released by the United Nations (UN) agency said one explanation for the increase is unprecedented stress caused by the social isolation resulting from the pandemic.
Loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and loved ones, grief following bereavement, and financial worries were all cited as factors leading to anxiety and depression.
The WHO noted that exhaustion has been a major trigger for suicidal thinking among health workers.
The brief includes estimates from the latest Global Burden of Disease study, showing the pandemic has disproportionately impacted young people and women.
Additionally, people with pre-existing physical health conditions were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders.
While those with pre-existing mental disorders do not appear to be disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, they are more likely to suffer hospitalization, severe illness and death compared to those without mental disorders. People with more severe mental disorders are particularly at risk.
Notably, the WHO wrote that the increase in the prevalence of mental health problems has coincided with severe disruptions to mental health services, and those for neurological and substance use conditions were the most disrupted among all services reported by WHO member states.
Many countries also reported major disruptions in life-saving services for mental health, including suicide prevention.
“The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
The WHO said the most recent pulse survey on continuity of essential health services indicated that 90% of countries are working to provide mental health and psychosocial support to COVID-19 patients and responders.
The agency called for a global step up in the commitment to investing in mental health resources.
“While the pandemic has generated interest in and concern for mental health, it has also revealed historical under-investment in mental health services. Countries must act urgently to ensure that mental health support is available to all,” Dévora Kestel, director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use, said.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line (Text START to 741-741).