Sunday

26th Sep 2021

Opinion

Shock of Covid-19 is catalyst to invest in mental health

  • Covid-19 magnifies the fact that anxiety, depression, and distress all stem from a variety of factors, including broader socio-economic issues and challenging life events such as social isolation or loss of family members (Photo: Alex Proimos)

World Mental Health Day is on Saturday (10 October), but we must remember that this isn't a one-day event - it is time to make mental health a fundamental pillar in the Covid-19 response.

Now is the moment to instigate long-awaited mental health care reforms. This is a timely opportunity for the EU to turn profound and long-term impacts of the pandemic on mental health into a catalyst for change.

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By integrating mental health into the recovery plan and the long-term funding and policies, Europe can build back better and come out more resilient against the massive challenges that will confront us in the future.

Mental health is a vital part of our individual and collective wellbeing. We work productively and contribute meaningfully to our society when we feel mentally well. Poor mental health is often associated with poor physical health and low quality of life.

Data from the European Commission and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, show that across the EU member states people with low income are two times more likely to experience mental health problems than those who are economically better off.

Covid-19 magnifies the fact that anxiety, depression, and distress all stem from a variety of factors, including broader socio-economic issues and challenging life events such as social isolation or loss of family members.

Social inequalities increase the risk of mental health problems, and mental ill-health aggravates inequalities.

Their intersection is fundamental and must not be addressed in silos. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the economic impact of poor mental health cost the EU four percent of GDP in lost productivity and social expenses.

With Covid-19 plunging the economy into a recession, social and economic disparities will only exacerbate the pandemic's consequences for mental health and wellbeing. We need a common European answer to protect and scale up mental health support. The EU must act promptly and decisively. We should keep in mind the long-term consequences of our actions, first and foremost.

The road to improved mental health lies in a coordinated public mental health response, including large-scale prevention and promotion of wellbeing.

This concerted cross-sectoral EU action should go hand-in-hand with increased investments in community mental health services. We need adequate funding to tackle socio-economic determinants of mental ill-health, and the role of the EU is instrumental.

Many European states (with Finland, Ireland and Malta at the forefront) proved it is possible to improve national mental health policies, plans and strategies.

All three member states work with wider social determinants of mental health and the spectrum of policies that have a proven impact on mental health.

The latest review by Mental Health Europe shows other promising development at the national level.

A lifecycle approach to positive mental health, for example, can help reduce the severity of mental health problems from an early onset throughout actions across the lifespan. A robust human rights framework in mental health care provision can protect users of mental health services who are at increased risk of violations of their rights.

Even though the strategies might not be a direct answer to the pandemic, they play an essential role in shaping national responses to the ongoing challenges and future recovery.

The strategies incorporate many essential elements needed to develop more resilient mental health systems and draw on the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, we need stronger coordination led by the European Commission and fundamentally the European Council to align the developments and enhance progress achieved. A comprehensive and well-resourced Europe-wide action on mental health can mitigate the long-term consequences of the current crisis.

Money matters

Following the theme of this year's World Mental Health Day, which calls for a scale-up in investment in mental health, we must increase our funding for mental health.

According to the World Health Organisation, poor mental health claims the lives of 140,000 people per year by suicide in the European region.

Their lives could be saved each year if mental health care and support were properly funded, and as a society, we de-stigmatise what mental health really is.

The new long-term EU budget, and particularly its direct health component, the EU4Health Programme, has the potential to deliver on the expectations for better mental health in Europe.

The EU and its member states are at a crossroad in their decision about the next seven-year budget.

Embedding mental health in the "future-proof EU4Health programme" will determine whether the EU could fulfil its fundamental duty to improve public health and place mental health on solid footing for the future.

After years of sitting on the margins of the European public health debate, the shock of the Covid-19 crisis calls for a hardline, coordinated response to advance Europe's mental health. We need not only more but wiser investments in mental health.

Concerted action from the EU leadership on mental health will have multiple benefits: improved health and wellbeing, strengthened health systems, reduced inequalities, better economic efficiency and societal resilience against future challenges.

Author bio

Alviina Alametsä is a Finnish MEP for the Greens/EFA, Sara Cerdas is a Portuguese MEP for the Socialists & Democrats, Maria Walsh is an Irish MEP for the EPP. All three are members of the Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Parliament.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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