Mental health: EU must recognise the challenges and adopt exceptional measures

The EU must find more innovative ways for its policies to have an impact on mental health, says Adina Vălean.

Adina Valean | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

25 Oct 2017

Nowadays, public health challenges are more and more complex and interlinked, which drives us to take a strategic approach to addressing them at all levels - individual, institutional, community, local or national. 

Coordinated initiatives are needed in order to integrate and ensure coherence between the many di¬fferent sectorial policies, which are relevant to keeping individuals and populations healthy.

This also applies to the field of brain disorders that, according to the WHO, account for 35 per cent of the burden of all diseases in Europe and are predicted to become the major medical need of the 21st century.


Many of the most prevalent brain disorders are chronic diseases that a¬ffect patients over a long period of time and generally progress slowly.

Among the different chronic diseases, mental health is a real public health challenge; an estimated 18.7 million EU citizens are expected to live with dementia by 2050. 

Depression and anxiety are yet other examples of highly prevalent and disabling conditions - each year, 25 per cent of the European population su¬ffer from depression or anxiety, up to 50 per cent of chronic sick leave is due to depression or anxiety and half of depression cases are untreated.

Recognising these challenges, the European Brain Council has recently published a study on the value of treatment.

I had the pleasure of attending the launch conference where experts involved in the study highlighted the need for more investment into research on neurological and mental diseases and exposed the wide disparities between and within countries relating to detection, intervention and treatment. 

As Chair of the European Parliament’s ENVI committee, I was particularly pleased to see that the findings emphasised the importance of early intervention and detection, which I find essential to reducing the burden on our healthcare systems. 

It has been well established that timely intervention brings measurable health gains such as improved survival rates, reduced complications and disability, better quality of life and lower treatment costs.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of integrated care that treats both the brain and the body. Simultaneously treating behavioural and physical conditions leads to better control of depression, diabetes, and heart disease, and importantly contributes to reducing healthcare costs.

Psychiatric illness increases with patients that live with chronic medical illnesses and conversely, these chronic medical illnesses also increase in patients with psychiatric illnesses, particularly in those with major mental illnesses. Consequently, patients with these conditions have increased morbidity and mortality and managing their condition becomes particularly costly at societal level.

But because of the way our service systems have evolved over time, the prevailing tendency has been to treat medical and psychiatric illnesses as if they occur in di¬fferent domains. We now know that this is not true from a patient standpoint, and if we are going to have patient-centred care, it needs to encompass all of the needs encompassed within the patient’s journey.

These challenges call for adopting exceptional measures and this brings to my mind recommendations from the high-level group on maximising the impact of EU research and innovation programmes, led by former WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy.

The recommendations focus on maximising the impact of future EU research and innovation programmes and call for adopting a mission-orientated approach to addressing global challenges. I was pleased to see that the aim to “understand and enhance the brain by 2030” is listed in the report as a potential health mission for the post-2020 EU framework programme for research. 

We, in the European Parliament, support all actors from the EU Institutions, individual MEPs, and industry to further strengthen cooperation between member states and innovation through recommendations, guidelines, workshops, and the exchange of best practices, with the goal of improving the lives of patients a¬ffected by neurological brain disorders. 

I endorse this idea that we should find innovative and comprehensive ways with which policy can successfully contribute in preventing, treating and curing brain-related conditions.

While the goal is very ambitious, striving to understand the brain better and to be able to o¬ffer e-ffective treatments for brain disorders is indeed a great gift that we can o¬ffer to future generations. It will also have positive implications on the EU’s capacity to innovate and on economic growth which requires healthy brainpower.