The Holiday Season amid COVID-19 & Growing Mental Health Crisis in Europe

As the New Year is approaching, marking the end of what has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone, Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, has released the following statement to summarize the difficult year full of challenges and the current epidemiological situation across Europe: 

"The winter holidays mark the end of what has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone. The terrible impact of the pandemic means perhaps the need to come together feels stronger than ever. 

"As we approach the holiday season transmission across much of Europe remains intense and widespread. There have been close to 23 million cases of COVID-19 in Europe this year.

"Tragically, as of yesterday, more than half a million of those with confirmed infections have lost their lives. The daily reported number of new COVID-19 deaths continues at the highest rates seen since the beginning of the year. As we come to the end of the year, I would like to reflect on the human toll this pandemic continues to inflict on our lives.

"Overall, the devastation of the pandemic has been far reaching and relentless, with lost lives and livelihoods. COVID-19 has forced families and communities apart, bankrupted businesses, and deprived people of opportunities that a year ago were taken for granted.

What has resulted is a growing mental health crisis in Europe

"From anxieties around virus transmission, the psychological impact of lockdowns and self-isolation, to the effects of unemployment, financial worries and social exclusion - the mental health impact of the pandemic will be long term and far reaching.

"National surveys undertaken during the initial stages of the pandemic revealed that a third or more of the adult population were distressed. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey on COVID and young people found that the pandemic has meant 1 in 2 young people (18-29-year olds) are subject to depression & anxiety and 1 in 6 probably affected. Up to 20% of health care workers are suffering from anxiety and depression.

"It is very clear that although impacted differently, no demographic or age group has been spared.

"The mental health toll of COVID-19 will be compounded by anxieties that often present during the winter and holiday season. We cannot underestimate the impact this can have on our friends, our families and the impact on our own mental health.

"Without the traditional physical support networks that are so important, it is vital we take steps to counter the mental health impact on individuals and our communities in any way we can.

"In this season of giving, protecting our own mental health and well-being, and promoting that of others, is one of the best gifts we can give.

"This has not been an easy year for anyone, if you are feeling low or anxious you are not enduring this experience alone.

"Everyone has different ways of coping, but there are many tools to mitigate feelings of anxiety or depression. From getting out into nature (where permitted), keeping active, to structuring and planning your days- doing things differently can be immensely restorative. At the heart of caring for each other is finding ways to connect; offering and accepting support.

"Mental health challenges remain deeply stigmatized in many communities. Community sensitization on the spectrum of mental health challenges will be important as the true scale of the crisis becomes clearer. Specialized care and support services need to be sustained for those in the grip of more severe mental health conditions.

"As we prepare for festivities over the next few weeks, whatever modified form they take, let us build on the collective spirit that has helped us navigate the last few months together.

"COVID-19 has shown us we are part of a community, enduring a shared experience. Despite the physical distance we have an opportunity to connect and care. The many social networking tools we have at our finger tips make it easier to reach out. The holiday season is the perfect excuse to reconnect. 

"Let us mobilize our social and community networks as well as the support services that are a lifeline to the marginalized, isolated and those in need of continuing care and treatment. Mental health services have been stretched and reduced because of pandemic response, it is imperative that health systems have the resources to catch up in 2021.

"And finally, our health, social care and essential workers have been the centre of our COVID-19 response. Without them we have no way through this pandemic. Prioritization of their psychosocial support needs is urgent and vital now, while in the long-term we develop a way to value their courage and contribution more concretely.

"We expect to see a larger number of people facing more severe mental health challenges in the coming months as the reality of this experience takes hold. In acknowledgement of the growing crisis I am calling for concerted action to invest in stronger mental health care services, particularly those that bring care to the community or utilize digital care to reduce obstacles to vital assistance.

It’s not worth the risk.

"While families debate how to spend their holidays, I have a final appeal to make. There remains a difference between what you are being permitted to do by your authorities and what you should do. The safest thing right now is to remain at home.

"Ahead of the winter holiday weeks, my three key messages to you:

  1. Recognize that even if separated from your loved ones, you are not alone.
  2. Reignite the collective spirit that has seen us through the crisis: reach out, connect, support
  3. Remember the safest thing to do is to stay at home.

"My family, including my elderly parents and I, have made the difficult decision to spend the holidays apart and at home. I am holding myself accountable with a reassurance that next year we can hope to be together again.

"My wish for 2021 is for each and every one of us, and our communities, to be safe and healthier.  With the early stages of vaccine roll-out, I think there is much to look forward to.

"We have a few more months of sacrifice ahead and can behave now in a way that collectively we are proud of. When we look back at these unprecedented times, I hope we all felt we acted with a spirit of shared humanity to protect those in need.

"Sending my thoughts across the Region, please play it safe and stay healthy."

18 December 2020 11:02