If ever there was a time to promote the importance of minding our mental health, this is it. We are in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in the EU’s history. The outbreak of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to deal with it are having a significant impact on the mental health of us all.
For this reason, I commend Mental Health Europe for their initiative: European Mental Health Week, which is drawing attention to this vitally important issue. I hope that we will be able to make it an annual event that raises awareness and calls for action on mental health across the EU.
There is no doubt that the past few weeks and months have been particularly challenging. The global COVID-19 pandemic is a brand new experience for everyone, and for many these can be particularly worrying days, as we are constantly warned of the risks and dangers of the disease in virtually all the media we consume.
Whether it is the articles we read, the news on TV, the tweets, the Facebook posts, the memes, we are constantly reminded of this ongoing situation. Often, we may feel overwhelmed with all of this - often negative - information.
It can make us feel worried and anxious about what is going on and how it may affect us and our loved ones. At the same time, for many of us, our lives are completely changed - albeit temporarily.
We don’t see our friends, family members and colleagues as often as we would like – if at all. In my own country of Ireland, for a number of weeks we were limited to a two-kilometre radius around our homes in which we could exercise.
“COVID-19 has shone a light on the issue of mental health and we must learn from the experience in our actions as policymakers”
We aren’t used to being restricted in this way and it can be challenging. Throughout this pandemic we have seen people with heightened stress levels, anxiety, irritability, insecurity, and feelings of a lack of control.
This is completely normal, but we must do what we can to keep reminding ourselves that the current situation will pass in time. There are small changes that we can make that, for many of us, will help us deal with the impact of this outbreak on our mental health.
For example, as an MEP, social media is a big part of how I communicate with my constituents, although even I can find the constant updates to be overbearing at times. It is a good idea to consider limiting the amount of time you spend on social media. It is also important to try and maintain a healthy routine.
Things like regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep, a healthy and balanced diet, being careful with alcohol consumption, reading and relaxing seem obvious and simple ideas, but they can all do a world of good for our mental health in a situation like this.
Something I think is really important is to keep in touch with people. Join a quiz with your friends on Zoom, Skype your family, send funny pictures on WhatsApp, play a game online with others - whatever you can do to stay connected with your friends and family, do it.
“Throughout this pandemic we have seen people with heightened stress levels, anxiety, irritability, insecurity, and feelings of a lack of control”
Talking to other people as often as you can is important when restrictions are in place, and it allows us to support one another, which can be vital. Remember, we are all in this together.
Finally, if things are too difficult, remember you can always seek help. Know the people you need to contact if things get too difficult, be it a mental health service, your friends, relatives or your doctor. It is okay not to be okay, and it is more than okay to get help when you need it.
COVID-19 has shone a light on the issue of mental health, and we must learn from the experience in our actions as policymakers.
As a member of the European Parliament’s Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing, I strongly believe that mental health needs to be at the centre of our work, particularly when we deal with policies relating to employment, migration and social affairs.
We need to consider the impact that our policies can have on the mental wellbeing of our citizens - this is vitally important.
In addition, we need to improve our policy actions on mental health at EU level, such as promoting mental health services that are accessible and affordable to all; increasing investment into mental health-related research activities and facilitating the sharing of best practices around the promotion of mental health.
Mental health is something that affects us all. If we want to have a Europe that puts its citizens first, then mental health needs to be at the forefront of what we do.
On this European Mental Health Week, I ask everyone to look after themselves and each other, and hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will be back to normality.