In an interview for Brussels Morning, Irish Member of the European Parliament, Maria Walsh (EPP) highlights that we need to address mental health in terms of funding and infrastructure, but we also needed to look at the way we talk with one another about mental health.
Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) How important for Europeans is the mental health of the citizens of the member states, how big are the future challenges ahead of the EU, and is there a string line in the notion that economic growth and social development in Europe are highly connected to this topic? The answers to these important questions and many more are answered in an exclusive interview for Brussels Morning Irish Member of the European Parliament, Maria Walsh (EPP).
1. APA MARINA SAVVIDOU MEP (AMS): You are a very passionate and devoted Member of the Parliament in addressing the mental health needs in the EU. How did this initiative start? Is it a personal matter for you?
Maria Walsh (MW): Mental Health is something which was on my radar long before I became a politician. In a way, this passion grew out of personal experience because there were a number of people and families in my local community who were impacted, either directly or indirectly, by mental health issues. My journey into politics was one which was born out of community involvement and a love for engaging with people, and my journey as a mental health advocate is no different. This initiative began because it became very obvious to me that we still had a long way to go in terms of mental health. I could see that, not only did we need to address mental health in terms of funding and infrastructure, but we also needed to look at the way we talk with one another about mental health. As well, I wanted to address the stigma that unfortunately still surrounds this issue.
2. AMS: How did you decide to initiate the campaign to make 2023 the European Year of Health? Did you have the support of many of your colleagues on that?
MW: To begin, it is important to note that, despite the massive amount of support I received from my colleagues here in the European Parliament and beyond, 2023 will not be the European Year of Mental Health. It will be the European Year of Education and Training, and of course, this is another important topic. When it was announced that 2023 would not be the European Year of Mental Health, I was initially quite disappointed. I think that’s natural though, because we had put so much time and energy into the campaign. On the upside however, there were a lot of positives announced that day in relation to mental health within the EU and of course, we welcomed these announcements. In her State of the European Union Speech, President Von der Leyen announced that there would be a mental health initiative in the coming year, acknowledging the importance of prioritising mental health and creating better mental health policies. Hearing the President of the Commission speak about mental health during the State of the Union speech was a huge win. When I joined the European Parliament in 2019, I was told that mental health was not an EU competence and therefore not something that would ever be ‘taken seriously’, but I think this has been proven wrong.
Although it would have been great for 2023 to be the European Year of Mental Health, my overarching ambition has been achieved and that is to get mental health higher up on the EU agenda.
3. AMS : What percent of the population is affected by mental illness in Europe?
MW: Pre-pandemic, mental health issues affected about 84 million people across the EU, with almost one-in-six people living with a mental health challenge. While these figures are startling, the sad reality is that this figure only refers to those who had actually been diagnosed with a mental illness. The OECD has, more recently, estimated that 1 in 2 are affected by mental health problems. This cannot be ignored any longer. Mental health is our next pandemic.
4. AMS : On the occasion of the European Year of Youth and taking into account that you authored the report on mental health in the European Parliament, could you tell us more on the findings on the impact that covid had on the young people regarding their mental health?
MW: I think we should give young people more credit for what they have experienced in the last two years and the way they managed to preserve and make the best of the situation with which they were faced. Unfortunately young people are the ones who suffer most with mental health difficulties, and the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic only compounded this. Mental health problems among people aged 15-24 doubled in most EU countries during the pandemic. In addition, 64% of young people between the ages of 16 and 34 were at risk of depression in 2021, with statistics showing that suicide was the second leading cause of death in Europe. These statistics are shocking and highlight why we need to take urgent action in relation to mental health in Europe, particularly to protect our younger citizens.
5. AMS :Why is mental health also important for economic growth and social development in the EU?
MW: Mental health issues are as much of a barrier to one’s ability to work as physical health issues. Almost 12 million work days a year are lost to mental health and although we should never reduce an individual’s mental wellbeing to a simple economic burden, it is clear that not addressing mental health issues is having a significant impact on our economies’ potential for productivity. Healthy people have a greater ability to work and learn than those in ill-health and a person cannot be deemed healthy without taking into account their mental wellbeing.
6. AMS : I have read about your impassioned plea to the Finance Minister of Ireland to increase the mental health spend as part of the Budget 2023. What steps have been made regarding this at an EU level? Do you believe that a fund dedicated to mental health should be established?
MW:It is essential that advocacy for mental health services is supported financially, and I welcome the €14 million for Irish mental health services pledged by our Minister for Finance in the 2023 budget. On the EU side, the Commission has launched the ‘Healthier Together’ Initiative, which started this year and will run until 2027. It is tackling 5 non-communicable diseases, one of which is mental health and neurological disorders. This is a massive step forward in raising awareness about mental health issues, particularly as the initiative has pledged €8 million to the strand of mental health. I welcome this wholeheartedly, but the total costs of mental health problems across the EU and the UK are estimated at more than €600 billion a year. A fund of €8 million over 5 years only mitigates the smallest percentage of what mental health costs the EU, and we desperately need to change this.
7. AMS : What is the most important message, as a member of the Parliament, as a young person and as an active woman in politics, you wish to send to the people and their families who suffer from mental issues in the EU?
MW:I think the most important message to get across is that you are not alone. Where there are challenges, there is always help to be found. It is also important to remember that everyone has mental health and therefore everyone is included in the discussion around mental health. I also really want people to know and understand that their representatives are listening and there is progress being made in the EU in the area of mental health. Finally, I think it is so important for each and every one of us to remember to check in with ourselves and with our friends and families. We should never feel uncomfortable in beginning to have these important conversations about mental health.