The United Nations has warned that the coronavirus pandemic risks sparking a major global mental health crisis.

The UN says while protecting physical health has been the main concern during the first months of the crisis, it is also placing huge mental strains on large swathes of the global population.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned: "After decades of neglect and under investment in mental health services, the Covid-19 pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress. Even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities," he said.

The UN brief highlighted the mental strains on people fearing that they or loved ones will be infected or die from the novel coronavirus, which has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide since it first emerged in China late last year.

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It also pointed to the psychological impact on vast numbers of people who have lost or are at risk of losing their livelihoods, have been separated from loved ones or have suffered under drastic lockdown orders.

"We know that the current situations, the fear and uncertainty, the economic turmoil - they all cause or could cause psychological distress", Dévora Kestel, head of the World Health Organization's mental health and substance use department, told a virtual briefing.

Healthcare workers and first responders - operating under "tremendous stress" - are particularly vulnerable, Ms Kestel said, pointing to news reports indicating rises in suicides among medical workers.

A whole host of other groups also face particular psychological challenges brought on by the crisis; children being kept out of school, for instance, face uncertainty and anxiety.

Along with women, they also face a heightened risk of domestic abuse as people spend lengthy amounts of time cooped up at home.

The elderly and people with pre-existing conditions face increased stress over the threat of infection, while those with pre-existing psychological issues could see them exacerbated.

The UN policy brief pointed to a range of national studies indicating that mental distress is mounting rapidly.

One study conducted in the Amhara region of Ethiopia showed that a third of the population were suffering from depression-linked symptoms - "a three-fold increase" from before the pandemic.

Other studies indicated that mental distress prevalence amid the crisis was as high as 60% in Iran and 45% in the United States, Ms Kestel said.

She also pointed to a Canadian study showing nearly half of health care workers said they needed psychological support.

The UN brief called for a significant increase in investments in areas like psychological support and emergency mental health care.

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A Consultant Psychiatrist at St Patrick's University warned that the effects of Covid-19 on the mental health of the population will be "very great".

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Sarah McInerney, Professor Jim Lucey said those who have come through Covid-19 – especially those who have had "a horrific experience, like being on a respirator" – have a high level of PTSD.

He said there will be "enormous consequences" for those working on the frontline who are witnessing a level of death "completely outside their expectation and experience".

Prof Lucey said levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD have "basically doubled in society since the onset of Covid-19", with as many as four in ten people experiencing symptoms.

He said we have been "very concerned about the virus" and we now need to be concerned "about the worry".

Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on mental health has suggested that a mental health taskforce be set up.

James Browne said the suggestion has been raised with a number of groups, including Jigsaw, and the view of some is that a taskforce could be linked with the new Vision for Change policy.

This would be taken up by the new government as a new policy initiative, he said.