Health & Wellbeing: A European mental health strategy

The Coronavirus crisis has highlighted that many of our existing support structures are no longer fit for purpose; we should plan to address this now, writes Cyrus Engerer.
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By Cyrus Engerer

Cyrus Engerer (MT, S&D) is a member of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee and the Special Committee on Beating Cancer

05 Jul 2021

If the COVID-19 pandemic has proved anything, it is that many of the structures we have always relied on are far more fragile than we initially believed. The Coronavirus crisis has left a severe emotional, as well as physical, legacy on citizens; something that has been exacerbated by the previously increasing levels of mental health issues that have been prevalent across society.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one in six people in the European Union had been diagnosed with mental health issues. That means that around 84 million people in the European Union experience various mental health conditions.

“Sometimes it is almost like it is socially acceptable for every organ in our body to get sick, except for our brain; this needs to change”

More recent studies have shown that during the pandemic, these numbers doubled, with at least one in every three adults suffering from anxiety or depression. Yet we must remember that behind these numbers are people.

Some are our family members, our neighbours or our co-workers and, at times, even ourselves. And yet, mental health continues to be the hidden crisis, amid a more evident one.

This is because mental health is too often overlooked. Sometimes it is almost like it is socially acceptable for every organ in our body to get sick, except for our brain; this needs to change. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us this; it has shown us that we just can’t keep working within the structures we had before, and we can’t keep taking our mental health and wellbeing for granted, like we did in the past.

During the pandemic, the already prevalent mental health issues we face in our society were amplified by isolation, fear for one’s safety or the safety of others, economic uncertainty and the fact that we all had to adjust to a new solitary reality.

But while it’s all fair and good to point out these issues, it’s far more important to start discussing what can actually be done to help. Earlier last year, following my election to the European Parliament, I was appointed as one of the co-Presidents of the European Parliament’s Mental Health Coalition. Upon my appointment as co-President, I stated that it was time that the European Union started to talk about a unified approach to mental health and wellbeing. 

Prior to the pandemic, the resources available to help improve structural assistance for all those who find themselves needing support for their mental health and wellbeing were very limited. The sector was severely underfunded, particularly at EU level, and too often such systems struggled to respond to the specific mental health and wellbeing needs of specific minorities, such as LGBTIQ persons, the transgender community and other marginalised communities.

“During the pandemic, the already prevalent mental health issues we face in our society were amplified by isolation, fear for one’s safety or the safety of others, economic uncertainty and the fact that we all had to adjust to a new solitary reality”

This, coupled with the fact that during the pandemic mental health and wellbeing services were not considered as an essential service, has really demonstrated a concrete need for action. And that action must be to establish a European strategy on Mental Health and Wellbeing that must feature as part of the upcoming proposals on a European Health Union.

The European Union must invest in mental health and wellbeing services, as they are directly related to the wellbeing and health of our citizens. There can be no European Health Union without mental health being a staple feature of that policy. We must ensure that mental health is given the same level of consideration and the same importance as physical health and wellbeing.

As I and the other co-Presidents of the European Parliament’s Mental Health Coalition have stated in the past, if we want to ensure recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, we must ensure that the after effects of the pandemic do not result in a further deterioration of the situation. Indeed, one of the main after effects of this pandemic is the increased prevalence of issues relating to the mental health and wellbeing of citizens.

We need a comprehensive European Mental Health Strategy as part of the European Health Union. And we need this now, before it is too late.

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