Mental Distress and Human Rights Violations During COVID-19: A Rapid Review of the Evidence Informing Rights, Mental Health Needs, and Public Policy Around Vulnerable Populations

Muhammad Rahman, Rabab Ahmed, Modhurima Moitra, Laura Damschroder, Ross Brownson, Bruce Chorpita, Priscilla Idele, Fatima Gohar, Keng Yen Huang, Shekhar Saxena, Joanna Lai, Stefan Swartling Peterson, Gary Harper, Mary McKay, Beatrice Amugune, Tammary Esho, Keshet Ronen, Caleb Othieno, Manasi Kumar

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


Background: COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts were abrupt and challenging for most countries with the protracted lockdown straining socioeconomic activities. Marginalized groups and individuals are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of the pandemic such as human rights abuses and violations which can lead to psychological distress. In this review, we focus on mental distress and disturbances that have emanated due to human rights restrictions and violations amidst the pandemic. We underscore how mental health is both directly impacted by the force of pandemic and by prevention and mitigation structures put in place to combat the disease. Methods: We conducted a review of relevant studies examining human rights violations in COVID-19 response, with a focus on vulnerable populations, and its association with mental health and psychological well-being. We searched PubMed and Embase databases for studies between December 2019 to July 2020. Three reviewers evaluated the eligibility criteria and extracted data. Results: Twenty-four studies were included in the systematic inquiry reporting on distress due to human rights violations. Unanimously, the studies found vulnerable populations to be at a high risk for mental distress. Limited mobility rights disproportionately harmed psychiatric patients, low-income individuals, and minorities who were at higher risk for self-harm and worsening mental health. Healthcare workers suffered negative mental health consequences due to stigma and lack of personal protective equipment and stigma. Other vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children, and refugees also experienced negative consequences. Conclusions: This review emphasizes the need to uphold human rights and address long term mental health needs of populations that have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. Countries can embed a proactive psychosocial response to medical management as well as in existing prevention strategies. International human rights guidelines are useful in this direction but an emphasis should be placed on strengthening rights informed psychosocial response with specific strategies to enhance mental health in the long-term. We underscore that various fundamental human rights are interdependent and therefore undermining one leads to a poor impact on the others. We strongly recommend global efforts toward focusing both on minimizing fatalities, protecting human rights, and promoting long term mental well-being.

Original languageEnglish
Article number603875
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • LMICs (low and middle income countries)
  • health care worker [non-MESH]
  • human rights
  • lockdown
  • mental and behavioral health
  • stigma and discrimination
  • vulnerable populations


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