Shalina Miah, Regional Manager of the UNV Office for Asia and the Pacific, during a visit to Sri Lanka in 2018.
Shalina Miah, Regional Manager of the UNV Office for Asia and the Pacific, during a visit to Sri Lanka in 2018.

Acting together: removing barriers to speaking about mental health

Mental health is one of the most significant pillars of a person’s wellbeing, and yet it is not a popular topic of discussion. This is especially true in the Asia-Pacific region. However, talking about mental wellbeing is important now – more than ever.

As a result of COVID-19, many people have experienced changes in their mental and physical wellbeing, due to isolation, restrictions and unexpected situations resulting from this unpreceded crisis. I have seen this happening in the Asia-Pacific region among UN Volunteers, colleagues and peers, especially those living away from their families and loved ones, who may have been more affected by this situation than others. 

On World Mental Health Day, here is my message too you:  taking care of your mental wellbeing is as important as taking care of everything else in your life. --Shalina Miah, UNV Regional Manager for Asia and the Pacific

From my experience, there are quite a few ways that our mental health can be affected during the Coronavirus pandemic. To start with, we are all grappling with a crisis we have never experienced before. Our life as we know it has changed, and we don’t know for how long.

We are all trying to get used to a new normal, with some of us still working from home, getting used to online meetings, and supporting our children in completing their school work online. This has also led to minimum interactions and physical contact with our colleagues, friends and families.

In the 21st century, it has become common to work and live outside your country of origin, leaving your loved ones behind. However, it is during a crisis such as COVID-19, with restrictions on movement, that one feels the distance and isolation without knowing when we will next have the opportunity to see our loved ones. This can take a toll on our mental health, and you are not alone in feeling this way.  --Shalina Miah

According to a recent survey by the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of countries worldwide, while the demand for mental health is increasing. Results reveal that over 60 per cent of respondents reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72 per cent), older adults (70 per cent), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61 per cent).

WHO  points out that even before the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2 per cent of their national health budgets on mental health, and were struggling to meet the needs of their populations. All of this highlights the need for more funding for mental health.

At a peronal level, despite trying to make the best of the situation, we may still feel scared. This is natural during such a global pandemic, as we fear that we, or our loved ones, could contract the virus. As a mother, wife, daughter, friend, colleague, I fear for the people I care about. --Shalina Miah

We need to proactively address the issues affecting our mental wellbeing. So, what can you and I do?

Advocate against mental health stigma. Despite progress in some countries, people with mental health conditions often experience severe human rights violations, discrimination and stigma. Again, this has been true before and during the pandemic. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to create the space in our offices and communities for discussions around the importance of mental health and wellbeing and counter stigma.

Speak up and seek assistance. Feeling unwell or mentally distressed is not something we need to hide or be ashamed of. Speak to your supervisors, colleagues, friends and/or loved ones about how you are feeling; do not keep your feelings bottled up. Do not hesitate to reach out to a professional who can help you overcome such challenges. We must all work together to help remove the barriers to speak about mental health.

Look out for each other. You may not know if someone you interact with regularly is going through a difficult time in terms of their mental wellbeing. Empathize and provide the space for people to feel comfortable to open up and seek help.

Check out online resources and information. During this digital age, there is an abundance of materials available online that could prove helpful. Here are some resources on mental wellbeing provided by WHO for the wider public.

Today, allow me to reiterate how essential mental health is to our overall wellbeing, and that it is as important as physical health. How we take care of our mental wellbeing affects our day-to-day lives in a significant manner; and the way we engage with and contribute to our communities.

Duty of care has always been an important aspect of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, and we strive to make the mental wellbeing of our peers and volunteers a priority.