Mental ill health has costs and consequences impacting individuals, their families and carers, health and social systems, employers, communities, and the economy. It affects more than one in six people in any given year, at a total cost of over €600bn – or more than four percent of EU GDP.
Mental health disorders are the fastest-growing current health burden, responsible for one third of all disabilities, for 15 percent of all inpatient costs and for a quarter of all drug costs. Poor mental health is consistently associated with unemployment, low incomes or poor standards of living, compromised physical health, challenging life events, poor quality of life, stigma and taboo.
At the same time, the loss of income resulting from unemployment or poor working conditions can easily trigger a decline in the standard of living of the individual or household. This, in turn, can affect mental health.
Dealing with mental ill health requires engaging with a range of services, such as health and social care, employment, education, and housing. Often, they are not aware of the scale and urgency of the matter. Moreover, public healthcare services very often lack the necessary capacity for dealing with mental health illness.
Paradoxically, despite this pervasive impact on individuals and society, and despite many governments acknowledging the issue, mental health and related policies have been accorded relatively low priority in practice across the EU.
However, now is the time to take action to change this: the COVID-19 pandemic has truly put the spotlight on the importance of mental health and well-being, as highlighted - inter alia - by the 2020 Health at a Glance report, compiled by the OECD in cooperation with the European Commission. This shows that rates of anxiety and depression are already increasing as a consequence of the pandemic.
“Dealing with mental ill health requires engaging with a range of services, such as health and social care, employment, education and housing. Often, they are not aware of the scale and urgency of the matter.”
The related measures taken - for example, the lockdown, leading to social isolation or teleworking – have resulted in problems of disconnection from work as well as difficulties maintaining a healthy work-life balance. These emotional disorders will only increase as a result of the predicted economic and social uncertainty.
Moreover, the pandemic has revealed systemic problems in how society deals with mental health, as services have not been able to keep pace with growing demand. These issues are prominent and highly visible at this point and will become even more so in a post-COVID-19 future, posing further challenges.
This is why the MEP Alliance for Mental Health has taken the initiative - originally voiced by Maria Walsh MEP in 2019 - to advocate for one of the coming years to be designated the European Year for Mental Health.
Such a Year would be a tangible and coordinated initiative to raise awareness of mental health and the impact of mental ill health, provide a platform for sharing good practice and experience, promote and facilitate discussion and contribute towards improving mental health across the EU.
While we recognise the limited EU-level remit in the field of mental health, we strongly urge the Commission to make use of the tools that it does have at its disposal; designating a European Year is one of those.
It could help increase and foster awareness – among policymakers, service providers and the general public - of the importance of all aspects of mental health, ranging from prevention, to diagnosis, treatment, care and cure and their psychosocial and material determinants.
“We strongly urge the Commission to make use of the tools that it does have at its disposal; designating a European Year is one of those.”
A European Year can achieve many practical aims. It can focus on to the impact of all policies and initiatives on mental health and vice versa. It can help mainstream mental health into wider policy development (social, education, finance, research, human rights...).
It can provide concrete support to and increase visibility of relevant initiatives and projects. It can support awareness raising and help reduce stigma. It can encourage investment in mental health competences of professionals in the fields of social protection, education, finance, research and human rights, support data collection and research and help collect and disseminate good practice.
Importantly, it will resonate well with EU citizens; in our Alliance meetings, held in November 2020 and March 2021, exploring the interest and potential involvement of relevant stakeholders across the board, the idea of a Year was unanimously welcomed.
Last, a EU Year for Mental Health could function as an important stepping stone to a comprehensive EU Mental Health Strategy, as requested by the 2019 Finnish Presidency and EPSCO Council Conclusions. The time to act is now – let’s make good use of it.