29th Sep 2023


Tackling young Europeans' ticking time bomb — mental health

  • In 2019, more than one-in-six young people in the EU suffered from a mental health problem (Photo: Pexels)
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In 2019, more than one-in-six young people in the EU suffered from a mental health problem. That is more than 14 million people aged 15-29.

Compared to the general population, young people are disproportionately affected by mental health problems, a fact that has caught the eye of policy-makers.

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  • Two-thirds of young Europeans experiencing financial difficulties were at risk of depression during the pandemic (Photo: Unsplash)

The pandemic and the various financial crises of past decade have only exacerbated existing inequalities and underlined the structural problems that young people already face, such as difficult access to housing or greater exposure to temporary or precarious work.

"If you just focus on mental health as a public health issue, you don't address the wider socio-economic conditions that create this situation," Alex Quinn, policy officer at the European Youth Forum (EYF), told EUobserver.

"You have to improve people's living conditions," Quinn said.

In this vein, a proposal for a resolution from the Spanish presidency, dated 23 June and seen by EUobserver, stresses the urgency of tackling the problem and sets out a series of public policies to address it.

One of the best formulas, it says, "entails re-examining, at a structural level, the conditions in which young Europeans are living, which do not favour their effective enjoyment of their rights".

According to Eurostat, one-in-four young Europeans is at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

There are some facts behind these figures. Unemployment reaches 2.7 million young people and the average age of leaving the parental home in countries such as Portugal, Slovakia, Greece, or Bulgaria is 30 years or older.

Moreover, financial difficulties increase the risk of suffering from mental health issues.

On average, two-thirds of young Europeans experiencing financial difficulties were at risk of depression during the pandemic, compared with 45 percent of those who were not, Eurofound reported.

As well as the root causes, what happens when you need help and you can't get it, either because of lack of staff or lack of financial means, is an issue, argues Mental Health Europe (MHE), an organisation who advocates to mainstream mental health in all policies.

In Romania, a one-hour session with a private psychologist was equivalent to 18.6 hours of work for a person earning the minimum wage (in 2019).

"In many European countries, talking therapy is a bit of a privilege," MHE policy manager Laura Marchetti told EUobserver.

According to a report from the OECD, half of the young Europeans reported unmet needs for mental health support in 2022.

Gap between theory and action

Health and mental health are areas where EU action out of Brussels is rather limited, as they are mainly the responsibility of member states.

Within this scope, the commission presented its mental health initiatives at the beginning of June. It was largely a statement of previous actions, without new undertakings.

"It gives a good diagnosis of what the problem is, but when it comes to solutions, there is a bit of a gap," said Quinn.

For example, one of the main objectives (if not the main objective) was to set out a roadmap for mainstreaming mental health into all policies. But for the EYF at least, it is not concrete enough about the steps for implementation.

MHE had hoped that the European Commission would present a long-term strategy in June, yet many of the flagship initiatives were already existing or have short-term budget lines.

Fatima Awil, policy officer at MHE, lists three key recommendations for adapting public policies to the needs of Europeans: prevention (and social awareness), effective outreach and targeted support for specific needs.

"We need to look at the individual, but also at the wider community," says Awil. Otherwise there is a knock-on effect. "If one group is not getting the right support, it has an impact on the wider community," she explained.

And not all young people need the same support. The most vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, people from non-white racial communities or LGTBIQ+, or women, are most affected by mental health problems and need a cross-sectoral approach.

Another cost: economic and political

As if the health urgency were not enough, inaction also has an economic cost — a very high one, according to the commission, and one that will continue to rise in the coming years.

According to a report by the EU executive, the cost of inaction is €600bn a year, or more than four percent of the GDP of all EU countries.

Not feeling understood or listened to can also lead to political mistrust. Making policy for young people is not the same as making policy with young people.

"If the impacted communities are not involved from the very beginning, we will produce policies, resources, and documents that do not reflect their actual needs," Fatima explained.

A recent study suggests that meaningful opportunities for political participation can lead to higher levels of trust in European countries. And an OECD survey on Covid-19 and youth found that more than half of respondents were worried about political polarisation after the pandemic.

"It is crucial to implement preventive measures to mitigate problems of loneliness, fear, defencelessness and precariousness (to which young people are particularly vulnerable) and thus contribute to the creation of just societies offering equal opportunities for all," notes the Spanish draft.


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