SEATTLE, Washington — Mental health disorders in Latin America are often stigmatized. However, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to increase the region’s health inequalities and limit mental health service access. People with mental illness can experience discrimination that affects their work, housing and access to health and legal services. A study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that Latin America and the Caribbean’ mental health services saw patients facing rejection, isolation, and low self-esteem. However, the study concluded that stigma surrounding mental illness in the regions can be addressed by understanding “the influence of gender issues, the power of family and its dual role as a protective but also discriminatory agent, and the attitudes of benevolence and solidarity.” Similarly, as the COVID-19 pandemic limits physical interactions, Latin America’s health sectors need to reconsider the online alternatives to mental health services for those facing poverty and limited access to technology.
Mental Health in Latin America
In the past several decades, there have been significant efforts to promote mental health and mental health services in the Latin American region. For example, in Mexico, “patients, families, and communities have participated in interactive educational activities with assistance from non-governmental organizations,” according to a 2003 study published by World Psychiatry. Similar programs have seen success in Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Chile and Bolivia.
However, the current pandemic threatens to reduce access to mental health services and people’s willingness to seek help. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted regular clinical services, telecare and disproportionately impacts older adults in nursing homes. As a result, people are experiencing social isolation and pandemic-related stress, causing disorientation, sleep disorders and increased anxiety and agitation. Natural disasters like Hurricane Maria and earthquakes in Puerto Rico have also caused a rise in poor mental health.
Although the current pandemic interferes with mental health services, there are steps healthcare providers, family members and those with mental illnesses can do to improve mental health.
Public Response and Community Outreach
The public health response to COVID-19 should reduce uncertainty surrounding quarantine and infection rates and strive to increase mental health literacy. Through multi-agency cooperation among housing, education, employment sectors, strategies centered around mental health education, self-care and family support can be achieved.
These agencies and local communities can identify stressors and encourage those in need to seek mental health services. Additionally, humanitarian organizations in many Latin American countries arranged emergency funds for people in need, virtual support meetings, community discussions and online resources.
Online Delivery of Mental Health Services
COVID-19 has impacted how people access mental health treatment. To maintain infection prevention measures, health services have turned to telehealth and virtual meetings for medication management, nursing, case management, vocational interventions and peer support.
During the pandemic, home-based treatment has become the top alternative to in-patient treatment, preventing the spread of infection through physical distancing. Moreover, many Latin American countries have provided critical mental health support for healthcare workers, the front-line fighters against the virus. Additionally, countries worldwide are extending mental health support to those who have or once had COVID-19, along with their family members and loved ones.
Adaptations to Mental Health Services
Since the pandemic began, technology has helped implement telehealth, remote video or phone conferencing, online therapy sessions and self-help treatment through online platforms. However, digital therapy requires internet access, data allowance costs, privacy and data security. As a result, these essential services are not as accessible for elders, low-income populations, or those who struggle with technology. Providing internet access for free or at a reduced rate is essential for disadvantaged communities, but is not a long-term solution. As such, Latin America’s health sectors need to conduct more research to find long-term alternative methods to help the most vulnerable populations have access to mental health services.
The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our everyday lives. However, in Latin America, with its limited mental health care resources, the pandemic is preventing many from accessing critical support and treatment. Psychiatrist and World Bank consultant Dr. Jose Miguel Uribe explains that by “making services available near the people, in the communities, and also assuring that general medical staff are trained to recognize mental illnesses,” the region can strengthen its primary mental health care. Thus, as global citizens, we must support organizations providing mental health services to those in need and ensure resources and support are available for all.