Health & Wellbeing: Meeting demand for mental health support

We must recognise and plan for the growing demand for access to mental health services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Alviina Alametsa.
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By Alviina Alametsä

Alviina Alametsä (FI, Greens/EFA) is a shadow rapporteur on the INI report on Arctic: opportunities, concerns and challenges.

05 Jul 2021

Imagine yourself at work, sitting in front of your computer. You start developing backaches. First you think nothing of it, but the pain starts to affect your work, so you go to see a healthcare provider. They are suspicious of your symptoms but, following some convincing, give you an appointment in two months. Your employer denies your request for a more ergonomic chair. It is getting almost impossible to get out of bed, so you take sick leave.

Many of your co-workers are of the opinion that you are lazy and just trying to avoid work. Finally, at your medical appointment the doctor informs you that for back problems, the public sector can only offer pain medication and if you want the recommended physiotherapy, you must pay for it yourself. 

“The thing is, we have ways to alleviate this problem. The key factors are accessible mental health treatment and early intervention”

For people suffering from mental health problems, this is a reality they face all around Europe. Occupational safety guidelines do not usually include psychosocial safety, support measures at work are hard to get and people risk being stigmatised. Our healthcare system is also failing people with mental health problems. People face many obstacles in seeking treatment, including long waiting times, stigma, administrative requirements and user fees. 

Depending on the Member State, between 30-70 percent of people with severe mental disorders have inadequate access to mental healthcare. A 2017 report funded by the European Commission said that “around 56 percent of patients with major depression receive no treatment at all”.

Even when access to care is offered, there is often a more than two-month waiting period, which can be life-threatening for some patients. Often, the primary or only treatment people receive is medication because psychotherapy is not provided in public healthcare. Where it is offered, there are often additional fees, further waiting, paperwork and a limited number of sessions.

Our failure to treat mental health is causing unnecessary suffering to millions. Currently, more than one in six Europeans have been diagnosed with a mental illness and numbers are rising. On top of the human suffering, this is also a cost to society. The yearly economic impact of mental illness in the EU is at least €600bn, more than four percent of our annual GDP. Increasingly, mental health problems are becoming the leading cause of disability-related early retirement in many Member States, costing society hundreds of millions of working hours. 

The COVID-19 crisis has further exacerbated these problems, increasing the prevalence of mental health issues. Isolation, fear for one’s safety or for others, the strain of economic uncertainty and adjusting to new realities such as home schooling or teleworking. This kind of crisis creates a collective trauma, and we will see the consequences of it after the pandemic itself is over.

Experts around the world are warning of an upsurge in mental health problems for years following the pandemic. Yet at the same time, mental health services have been reduced during the pandemic and have not been able to fully meet the growing demand. This has seen disruptions to mental health services, such as counselling or therapy, but also shortages of medications. There has even been disruption in emergency mental healthcare, which can literally be a life-or-death situation for an individual.

Like most medicines deemed non-urgent, accessibility to treatment has reduced considerably. Many people have found their treatment plans cut short, while at the same time they face problems in their lives. This has had a disproportionately negative impact on those people who had already found it difficult to seek treatment.

“Currently, more than one in six Europeans have been diagnosed with a mental illness and numbers are rising”

Now that we are hopefully finally reaching the end of the pandemic, we must put our efforts into militating the lasting negative effects of the crisis, not only to our economies but also to our wellbeing. Our long-term recovery is dependent on how the EU and its Member States support the quality of life and well-being of its citizens, which will, in turn, affect Europe’s future cohesion, productivity and overall economic performance.

The thing is, we have ways to alleviate this problem. The key factors are accessible mental health treatment and early intervention. This provides for better health outcomes, reduces the cost of treatment and need for hospitalisation, keeps people functional in their daily lives and lessens the stress experienced by loved ones. This is what I have done my best to implement in my home city of Helsinki.

As a city counsellor, I proposed initiatives that have led to low threshold service centres called MIEPPI. They provide free-of-charge services for anyone wishing to speak with a mental health professional. There are currently two centres, but early this year the city has decided to open more.

Covid has made us more keenly aware of structural problems in our society, one of them being the way we treat mental illness. Healthcare is a basic necessity and a human right, no matter if the ailment is physical or physiological. It should be as easy to seek treatment for mental health problems as it is for back pain. And it should be equally accepted too.

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