Mental health has been a key concern of mine, long before I became an MEP in 2009. I practiced as a psychotherapist for 20 years. In 1993, together with other colleagues, I established the M.Sc. course in psychoanalytic psychotherapy at Trinity College Dublin.
Back in 2009, some of my MEP colleagues and I co-founded the interest group on mental health, wellbeing and brain disorders, co-ordinated by GAMIAN-Europe, a representative coalition of patient organisations.
This group meets regularly in the European Parliament with the aim of advocating development of sound EU policies that contribute to prevention of mental health problems and ensuring services, care and empowerment for those affected by mental health issues.
Mental health has always been neglected when it comes to prioritising policies, both at EU and member state level. The 2005 Commission green paper on ‘Improving the mental health of the population’ was positive in advocating for concrete actions to tackle mental health issues at national level.
Predictably, the 2008 financial crisis has had a substantial adverse effect on people’s mental health in many countries. The fear of job loss, higher work demands and the constant restructuring of firms undoubtedly increase workplace psychological risks, compounded with cuts to frontline healthcare and welfare services.
More generally, the main risk factors for work-related stress can include heavy workload, long working hours, lack of control and autonomy at work, poor relationships with colleagues, poor support at work and the impact of organisational changes.
As rightly mentioned in a Parliament resolution on creating labour market conditions favouring work-life balance in 2016, we must remember that women and minority groups such as LGBTI persons face increased risks of stress which can in turn threaten their mental health, when faced with heightened pressures at work.
The WHO’s European action plan for 2012-2020 went as far as assessing that structural workplace factors, including high stress and low satisfaction, can lead to alcohol use disorders and dependence.
This is not the only disorder placing even greater pressure on our health system. Other disorders aggravated by long-term work stress are cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases, depression, anxiety, digestive problems and long-term mental health problems.
In 2013, the Commission established a three-year joint action and a web-based mechanism, EU Compass, to help reduce work-related stress and other mental health problems.
This shares best practices, collects data and arranges annual workshops. However, a more ambitious plan would include implementing mental health-specific national action plans modelled on existing cancer and rare disease plans.
Second, there should be better primary community-based care services dedicated to mental health. Funding is ever scarcer in these areas, meaning data collection, research and support for workers is decreasing. We simply cannot a¬fford to lose momentum in such a critical area.
Lastly, when it comes to policymaking, it is vitally important for politicians and civil servants can consult with patients and representative organisations on a regular basis. Work-related stress, and mental health disorders more generally, are a rapidly growing challenge across the EU.
And since mental and physical health problems are deeply interwoven, if patients and society cannot avail of good services, we will have a less productive population and overburdened medical services, not to mention the avoidable human suffering.