WHO Europe warns of the wave of serious mental health problems this winter due to COVID-19

Until next Monday, December 21, the days continue to shorten, and then we have three months of winter left, in the northern hemisphere. If the winter season and Christmas are always difficult periods for mental health, the uncertainties and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic have a multiplier effect that worries the World Health Organization (WHO).

This Friday the European office of the WHO has warned that they fear seeing an increase in people facing “serious mental health problems” in the coming months.

He also urged everyone to “stay home”, even if their countries’ official guidelines allow Christmas gatherings.

Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Director for Europe, reiterated in a statement that the global pandemic has led to a growing mental health crisis in the Old Continent, the impact of which is likely to be “long-term and far-reaching”.

He warned that the mental toll of COVID-19, which has hit people indiscriminately, “will be compounded by the anxieties that often come up during winter and holidays.”

“We expect to see more people facing more severe mental health challenges in the coming months as the reality of this experience progresses,” he added.

In a survey conducted in 25 developed countries during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring and published by the European Commission, 28% of those surveyed reported feeling lonely and 27% said they had felt depression or anxiety.

In the winter months, an increase in mental health problems is traditionally observed in people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (ASD), a form of depression that in a normal year usually affects around 5% of adults of the United States, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

The disorder is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by reduced hours of daylight and decreased sunlight. The organization stressed that the symptoms can be distressing and interfere with daily functioning.

Europe is currently battling a devastating second wave of the pandemic and various levels of restrictions have been put in place, including strict lockdowns as in Germany. People are urged to restrict travel, stay home, and see as few people as possible.

Dr. Kluge urges all Europeans to mitigate feelings of anxiety and depression by staying active and finding ways to connect with others.

He also called on the authorities to offer “specialized care and support services” to those most affected and to promote mental health care in communities, where “mental health problems remain deeply stigmatized.”

“In this gifting season, protecting our own mental health and well-being and promoting that of others is one of the best gifts we can give,” he said.

At Christmas celebrations, which will be very different this year, Dr. Kluge argued that even those who are allowed to gather with other households should avoid it. “The safest thing to do right now is to stay home.”

“My family, including my elderly parents and I, have made the difficult decision to spend the holidays apart and at home. I take responsibility with the assurance that next year we can look forward to being together again,” he continued.

In England, authorities allow up to three households to come together for Christmas, but have urged that the holidays be “smaller and shorter.” The night curfew in France will be lifted on Christmas Day and up to six adults will be able to celebrate together.

The German authorities have also asked that contacts be kept to a “minimum” during the holiday period. Italy, however, prohibits people from leaving their hometown on Christmas Day.

In Spain, meetings of up to 10 people are allowed with an extended curfew on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, although perimeter closures persist in many Autonomous Communities.