Depression and anxiety have risen in post-COVID-19 Chile. Prolonged confinement, uncertainty and lack of social contact triggered a dramatic increase in these pathologies. However, these frightening figures have made these diseases visible at levels never seen before, which is the first step to achieving important changes.
Depression and Anxiety on the Rise
Mental health is often a silenced topic in Chile, as well as in most parts of the world. One can see the unequal treatment that patients suffering from mental illness compared to physical illnesses received by the lack of services dedicated to these and the discrimination that mentally ill individuals have suffered. These are diseases that the media has traditionally not highlighted and that many treat as minor problems. Undoubtedly, this generates mistrust on the part of the affected person when seeking help.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, depression and anxiety are some of the most worrying results of the lockdown. A study that the Catholic University of Chile conducted, in collaboration with the Chilean Safety Association (ACHS), indicated that mental health issues were among 35% of respondents by 2020. While, in 2020, the number of people that some symptoms of depression affected was 13%, in 2022, it rose to 16% due to unemployment and economic instability due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, as many as 28% suffered from anxiety.
Despite the problems with mental health in Chile, the total budget dedicated to mental health is currently at 2%, which is the lowest among all OECD countries. Without a doubt, this situation requires governmental action to achieve a change in strategy and an increase in the budget.
Mental Health: Challenges and Solutions
The impact that mental instability has on one’s performance and on society reaches consequences that affect the whole country. Giving these illnesses the importance they require and establishing a prompt response can have a positive impact on society’s well-being but also on reducing poverty. For example, mental issues have massive indirect costs that have links to the lack of productivity and motivation of the affected person. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), mental health problems are the main cause of disability in Chile. Chile is also one of the Latin American countries with the highest depression rates, especially among the lowest-income groups. This suggests that chronic depression or severe anxiety disorders cause the inability to perform well in society, increasing the possibility of unemployment, drug addiction, and therefore, the risk of poverty.
Thus, mental health problems increase the levels of poverty while poverty increases the chances of suffering from mental issues. In order to break this vicious cycle, mental illnesses ought to receive treatment in time. Accepting the reality that mental health is equally important to physical health and making this reality visible, not only brings urgency to the matter but also incentivizes people to reach out without being scared or shameful to do so. Breaking the social stigma that mental instability is a symbol of weakness or insanity is the first step toward an effective response.
The First Signs of Grass Shoots
Fortunately, there is a change for the better. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed the importance of mental health in a series of guidelines that it published earlier in 2022. These are in the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030. In fact, the WHO argues that every country can move towards progress simply by making the problem visible. It promotes:
- Raising awareness about mental health so that everyone understands the importance of it.
- Eliminating the stigma of mental illness.
- Improving access to mental health treatment.
Mental health in Chile became more visible since COVID-19. In 2021, Chile increases its budget by 310% compared to the previous year. The funds go toward:
- Strengthening the human resources in mental health care for children and teenagers.
- Improving primary health care in mental health.
- The introduction of the Remote Brief Psychological Intervention Program, which people can use to communicate with a doctor through a video call.
Some of the most recent updates in Chile show even more positive progress. The national budget for public spending in 2023 that the President of the Republic, Gabriel Boric, announced dedicated more than $18 billion to strengthen Chile’s response to mental diseases.
As Boric stated “mental health matters and we are not going to leave them alone.” Meanwhile, global mental health day was celebrated on October 10, 2022, and the Health Minister from Chile, Ximena Aguilar, reaffirmed the same idea stating that people will no longer have to face their mental health issues alone. The Government of Chile establishes as a priority to advance the improvement of the treatment of mental illnesses while protecting the rights of the people who suffer from them.
– Carla Tomas Laserna