Comforting hands

Keeping mental health at the forefront of development, during Covid-19 and beyond

The attention paid to mental health and wellbeing in the media during the Covid-19 outbreak has been heartening.

Concern about the health and safety of loved ones, the impact of lockdown and worries about financial security have made mental health and wellbeing a large part of the public discourse, which has gained the issue political currency.

Wellbeing is by definition what matters for a fulfilled and content life, and it could be argued that the ultimate aim of international development efforts is wellbeing. Though this is often not clearly stated, and is rarely measured as an outcome: poverty alleviation, peace and security, health, education, housing, violence reduction, gender equity, disability inclusion and good governance, all have a positive impact on wellbeing, reflecting an unconscious consensus around the driving purpose of many activities in our sector.

This idea has started to be more explicitly acknowledged. The Millennium Development Goals did not mention mental health, but the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals aim to “ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing”. The Political Declaration on Universal Health Coverage highlights mental health, and the OECD, the World Economic Forum and many businesses now see wellbeing as an important issue.

Mental wellbeing improves development outcomes

Improved mental health may be a critical factor in achieving key development outcomes around the world, such as girls having improved participation in education, reduced levels of gender-based violence, and better health through adherence to treatment for HIV and TB.

And for Covid-19, better mental health could critically mean better adherence to handwashing, physical distancing, participation in test-isolate-trace-quarantine campaigns, and eventually, uptake of vaccination.

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Over the last 10 years, the UK has taken a leading role in global mental health, with investment by the Department for International Development (DFID) in key research, and through hosting the first global Ministerial Mental Health Summit. DFID published a topic guide for development professionals this year, and we understand that it will launch its landmark “theory of change and position paper” within weeks.

DFID engaged extensively with the Bond Mental Health and Psychosocial Disability Group in the development of this position paper. The group is now looking to enable these important principles to be translated into concrete action during the Covid-19 response.

The planned DFID-FCO merger clearly poses a substantial risk, given that mental health is only a relatively recent area of growth for DFID. On the other hand, there is strong recognition in government of the importance of mental health on the domestic agenda, and the Bond Mental Health Group and partners are working to ensure a proper place for mental health in the new merged entity. Hopefully this will allow a coherent approach to mental health across the different aspects of the UK’s international work.

We are also keen to support increased integration of wellbeing and mental health into the international NGO sector in the UK. We have achieved a lot in this arena, but there is a long way to go.

Mental wellbeing for staff during Covid-19

The importance of protecting the mental health of staff is now widely recognised by the sector. But we need to pay particular attention during periods of intense work, financial insecurity, and risk to health or safety.

People working in international development are at particular risk of mental health problems, which can arise from supporting people in vulnerable and dangerous situations. NGOs, like any employer, need to put in place measures to protect and promote wellbeing. If people are struggling, they should provide the support staff need to recover.

But we can also look after our own wellbeing, and some excellent guidance has been developed during the Covid-19 outbreak for this purpose. Here are some tips for looking after yourself and coping with stress:

  • Follow health advice, especially avoid risk of getting infection or passing it on (e.g. wash hands, distance yourselves from others in public)
  • Stay informed, but don’t immerse yourself in too much negative news. Only follow trusted and respected news sources
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eat well, sleep well and exercise. Don’t resort to negative coping mechanisms like smoking or drinking too much
  • Take time out if you need to. If a situation is very stressful, try to remove yourself from it, even if for a short time.
  • Find trusted people to talk to, like friends, family or colleagues
  • Speak to a professional. If available, it can be helpful to speak to a counsellor if those around you are unable to help.

(Based on WHO’s ‘Coping with stress during the 2019-nCoV outbreak‘)

Building back better after Covid-19

There is no doubt that the impacts of Covid-19 on international development will be profound. A slowing, or even reversal of gains, towards global development goals will lead to worsening of inequity and other social determinants of mental ill health.

Mental health needs to be a factored into long term planning for economic and social recovery. Application of best practice to improve mental health will help us achieve our goals across all sectors. To help the world recover from a deadly pandemic, and build more resilient, equal, and prosperous communities in future, mental wellbeing needs to be at the forefront of our planning.

Join the Bond Mental Health Group to share, learn and discuss mental health and the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities in international development policy and practice.

You can also join our webinar on building caring and inclusive organisations for mental wellbeing on 28 July.