The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a "profound and pervasive impact" on global mental health as billions struggle to cope with isolated living and anxiety spikes, experts warned Thursday.
In a paper published in Lancet Psychiatry, a panel of 24 specialists call for more funding for research into the impacts COVID-19 may have on society's mental well-being.
Two accompanying surveys of the British public showed that most people questioned had experienced heightened anxiety and fear of becoming mentally unwell since the pandemic struck.
"We are all dealing with unprecedented uncertainty and major changes to the way we live our lives as a result of coronavirus," said lead author Emily Holmes from Uppsala University's department of psychology.
"Our surveys show these changes are already having a considerable impact on our mental health."
The authors called for real-time monitoring of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide across the world, as well as the creation of treatment programmes that can be accessed remotely.
"This needs to be on a bigger scale than we have ever seen previously, and must be coordinated, targeted and comprehensive," said Matthew Hotopf, from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.
"Above all, we want to stress that all new interventions must be informed by top notch research to make sure they work."
Studies into the mental health impact of previous disease outbreaks, such as the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, showed a clear increase in suicide rates and the number of health care workers who experience emotional distress.
But the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic is unprecedented, with billions of people forced to isolate at home and no end in sight even after social distancing measures are eased.
'Perfect mental health storm'
The surveys, conducted among more than 3,000 people in Britain, showed a wide range of fears arising from the pandemic.
These include increased anxiety, the effects of social isolation, the fear of becoming mentally unwell and accessing care if needed.
The experts cautioned that these symptoms were likely to continue well in to the future, even after the current round of lockdowns are eased.
The authors called for government funding to establish specialised working groups comprised of people with experience of mental health impacts to ensure research and treatment are prioritised.
"Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people's mental health and wellbeing," said Rory O'Connor, professor of Health Psychology at the University of Glasgow.
He said that a lack of intervention risked an explosion of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as a rise in alcohol and drug addiction.
"The scale of this problem is too serious to ignore, both in terms of every human life that may be affected, and in terms of the wider impact on society."