From early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been clear that the mental health impact would be great; not only due to the direct impact on those infected and their families, but also due to the stress of protective measures such as physical distancing and school closures, high levels of unemployment, financial hardship and uncertainty regarding the future. If left unaddressed, high levels of stress within the community can increase the risk of an upsurge in more serious mental health problems requiring specialist treatment, which would leave many mental health systems in the region unable to cope with the demand.
In Papua New Guinea, the response from the Directorate of Social Change and Mental Health Services has been to build capacity within communities to promote and protect mental health through raising awareness about ways to manage stress and teaching people to identify early signs of mental health problems so they can get support before things become overwhelming. In collaboration with community partners and the WHO Country Office, the Directorate implemented a broad range of activities and services which aim to engage people in the community where they live, work and study, and to reach into rural and remote communities as well as urban areas. Activities have included talks and workshops involving multiple sectors and service providers, including teachers, students, religious leaders, health workers, caregivers, media personnel, and members of the general public. A nationwide television program titled “PNG Hour of Hope” was televised daily and relayed via Facebook livestream, covering an array of mental health promotion topics including “Community Response to Disaster,” ‘Caring for Yourself and Your Colleagues,” “Managing Burnout,” “Stigma and Discrimination,” and “Mental Health Promotion in Schools.” The topics covered in the program were also disseminated through daily newspapers and radio shows to reach an even wider audience.
More targeted activities for those in distress and to reach those from vulnerable groups have included training in basic psychosocial and stress management skills for frontline healthcare workers and police, aiming to build their capacity to support the public as well as to look after their own mental health and that of their colleagues. A mental health hotline was also established to respond to the needs of those with pre-existing mental and physical health conditions and to support continuity of care while in-person services are not available.
To date, the uptake in services and engagement in community-based activities has been significant, with hundreds of community members trained and many thousands accessing and following mental health promotion broadcasts via television and social media.
[Source: Jessica Yaipupu and Dr. Priscilla Nad, MNS focal points, PNG CO]