The number of people referred by health centers to hospitals with suspected mental problems fell by 30% in 2020, compared to 2019, due to the impact of the pandemic on health care, points out a study by the Entidade Reguladora da Saúde (ERS) released on Wednesday.
“This decrease in the number of referenced users reflects the impact of the pandemic in the area of mental health, namely due to the need to reallocate physical and human resources to treat patients with covid-19”, reads the document that warns that, after an increase in the volume of users who were referred to hospitals in mainland Portugal in the area of mental health in 2019, in the first year of the pandemic there was a “sharp reduction in referrals by about 30%”.
“The Regional Health Administration of Lisbon and the Tagus Valley had the greatest negative variation, in this period, corresponding to 36.1%”, also indicates the study by the regulatory authority on access to mental health services in primary health care.
According to ERS data, the number of adults referred for hospital mental health care decreased from 28,378 to 19,760 between 2019 and 2020, a reduction that was also seen in children and adolescents, who went from 6210 to 4397 in the same period.
In addition, there was a decrease in the number of consultations in this area by around 14% in health centers in 2020, the year in which “the first impact” of the covid-19 pandemic was seen. Comparing these two years, there was, on the other hand, a 2.5% increase in the number of users (adults and children) diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which the ERS admits is also related to the pandemic.
When crossing the data, the regulator found that, while the number of psychology consultations and mental health care consultations decreased, the number of adults and children diagnosed with depression and anxiety increased. “Taking into account that diagnoses of depression/anxiety in adults and children are increasing and mental health consultations are decreasing, this could indicate the existence of difficulty in the population’s access to adequate health care”, warned the document.
shortage of professionals
The study also states that the number of people (adults and children) with this diagnosis increased in mainland Portugal from 1,442,033 in 2019 to 1,478,428 in 2020.
“It was verified that the health regions are taking steps to improve access to health care in the different age groups of the population, through the reinforcement of the services available, namely psychological support lines, crisis office, additional consultations, consultations face-to-face meetings, child mental health support groups, among other activities”, stresses ERS.
As for human resources, the regulatory authority identified a shortage of professionals in the area of psychiatry in primary health care, noting that “only the Regional Health Administration of the Center indicated that it had psychiatrists” in its units.
The ERS also stresses that, at European level, Portugal “is the country with the highest prevalence rate” of symptoms associated with psychological problems.
The data referred to in the study indicate that this prevalence has a minimum rate of around 5% in Ireland, Poland, Estonia, the Slovak Republic and Finland, with the highest value of 23% recorded in Portugal.