Unlike a cold or a bad cough, it’s not easy to spot when someone is suffering from mental illness. Even those suffering from a mental illness sometimes fail to recognise that there is something wrong with them, and are often reluctant to speak up or seek treatment. Yet these illnesses are more common than you might think.
European health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis points out that, “One in 20 people in the EU are currently suffering from depression. One in four of us will su¬ffer a depressive episode at some point in our lives.
“At its worst, depression can lead to suicide - a significant cause of death in many EU countries. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Because mental health issues are often surrounded by stigma, it is essential to raise awareness on the importance of early diagnosis and fight the false ideas spread regarding mental health.”
While mental health is not an EU competence as such, policymakers are trying to do what they can on the topic. Andriukaitis explains that the Commission provides support to the member states on their mental health policies, as well as projects linked to the EU mental health programme.
“To mention a few projects we supported: The ‘PROYOUTH’ project created a website where young people can find information about eating disorders, and links to health professionals, if necessary; the Predinu project has set up the ‘I-Fight-Depression’ website with information about depression and tools for guided selfcare focused on young people; the Promenpol project produced a handbook on promoting mental health in schools.”
Several MEPs, meanwhile, have joined forces with Mental Health Europe (MHE) and formed the coalition for mental health and wellbeing.
MHE tells the Parliament Magazine that it’s possible for the EU to act on the issue, because, “Parliament’s decisions in many areas, such as social, disability, migratory and human rights policy, are likely to have a direct impact on the wellbeing of millions of Europeans and on people living with mental ill health and psychosocial disabilities.
“Mainstreaming mental health in all European policies is important and possible, as it contributes to a sustainable and healthy Europe for all. MHE is pleased to support the work of MEPs in developing mental health friendly policies and hope to welcome new members in the coming months.”
Finnish EPP group deputy Sirpa Pietikäinen, a member of the coalition, underlines that, “Mental health is as important as physical health.
“We should look after our brains the same way as our bodies. Just as we research, develop policy and encourage action at the individual level for the maintenance of good physical health, we need to take the same actions with respect to mental health. Through such actions we should encourage the prevention of mental disorders.”
She adds, “Good mental health means good urban and working environments to minimise stress factors that can increase for example anxiety disorders or depression. There is a wide range of mental illnesses that can a¬ffect people at di¬fferent stages of their life.
“We have to work together to combat stigma and ensure equal access to health services and the fulfilment of the right to quality and timely healthcare for people a¬ffected by mental health issues.”
There is also a gender dimension to dealing with mental health. ALDE group member Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea, who authored a parliamentary report on promoting gender equality in mental health and clinical research, says, “The Commission and member states’ policies must take due account of gender di¬fferences in research and health care, in terms of prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
“Women are dramatically underrepresented in biomedical research and clinical trials, despite making up over half of the EU population. In the area of mental health and wellbeing, the EU needs to promote education at all levels in order to challenge stereotypes, and address the impact of emerging technologies and the internet on mental health, particularly on women and girls.”
Michał Boni, one of Parliament’s most active members on tech and eHealth, thinks new technologies could be key to tackling Europe’s mental health challenge.
“By 2030, the very nature of disease will be further disrupted by technology. The EU needs to take a more vital role in strengthening primary health care in the member states, with technology’s full potential to improve the quality and efficiency of personalised care.
“Healthcare systems should be redesigned based on community needs, to include services ranging from prevention and early intervention to emergency care. This would ensure systems are fit-for-purpose in tackling today’s and tomorrow’s disease burden.”
The Polish EPP group member adds, “There needs to be more engagement from, and collaboration among, the scientific community, research funding agencies, national governments, academic institutions, multilateral organisations, advocacy organisations and health providers. No European country alone has the expertise or resources necessary to tackle these issues and real progress can be made by working together.”