Mental health crisis on the rise in Europe

Marta Pacheco
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Belgium, (Brussels Morning) After two years of pandemic and social restrictions, mental health illness is on the rise in Europe threatening higher risk of depression among the population. The warning comes from a survey conducted by Eurofund, the 5th round, fielded from 25 March to 2 May 2022. 

The study sheds light on the social and economic situation of people across Europe two years after COVID-19 was first detected on the European continent. It also explores the reality of living in a new era of uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine, inflation and rising energy prices.

Despite the lifting of most lockdown measures in early 2022 as the pandemic dwindled, the number of people reporting ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ health continued to increase, from 7.9% in March 2021 to 12.7% in March 2022, according to the survey. Eurofund is linking a higher risk of depression among people who report their health as being ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.

In March 2022, the average level of mental well-being in the EU was 47 – a slight improvement on the level recorded in 2021 (45), but still below the level measured at the start of the pandemic (49).

The pandemic and its related restriction measures have been associated with a decline in mental well-being, particularly for young people.

EU action on mental health

On the occasion of World Mental Health Day, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, recognized mental health as a health emergency and said “a turning point” is needed to bring effective support to those in need.

“Our mental health is precious. It is high time we started taking better care of it. It is our responsibility to deliver for those most affected by the challenges we are facing. Now is the time to act, and to make mental health a priority,” said Kyriakides on Twitter.

During her Speech of the Union (SOTEU) European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen announced investment on mental health, noting that the initiative is a response to the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), which ended in May. Details are still to emerge from the Commission’s pledge to address the mental health crisis in Europe. 

However, according to the CoFoE report: “An EU Action Plan on mental health should be developed, that would provide long term Mental Health Strategy, including on research and also tackle the issue of availability of professionals, including for minors and the setting up in the near future of a dedicated European Year of Mental Health.” 

In July 2020, Parliament recognised mental health as a fundamental human right and called for an EU action plan on mental health. In 2021 MEPs called for the right to disconnect from work outside working hours.

In June 2022, the EU executive presented its “Healthier Together Initiative”, a strategy to combat non-communicable diseases, which included “mental health and neurological disorders” as a focus point. Recently on October 6, as part of a public consultation, the Commission selected four 2022 thematic networks, from a total of 15, including one on mental health, led by the Brussels-based Mental Health Europe (MHE).

“MHE has been calling for more coordinated actions on mental health – and specifically a European Mental Health Strategy – for many years, so we strongly welcome von der Leyen’s announcement [SOTEU]. We consider this a significant achievement of our continuous advocacy efforts and fruitful collaboration with various stakeholders,” said Claudia Marinetti, MHE Director.

Socio-economic impact

Worldwide, around 12 billion work days are lost every year due to depression and anxiety, costing almost $1 trillion, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization.

The cost of inaction can be a blow for Europe as, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, in European countries, the economic costs of mental ill health can exceed 4% of gross domestic product (GDP).

These are driven by reduced productivity and participation in the labor market, as well as direct costs outside of the health system, such as in social security programs.

“Europe needs a programme to address the widespread problem of deteriorating mental health. Given the fact that we are going through very tumultuous times, a proactive plan is needed to improve the standards of well-being for everyone,” stated Jackie Mellese, Communication Manager at MHE. 

Mellese emphasized the need for a detailed plan such as a European Mental Health Strategy and “Mental Health in All Policies” designed to react to the flurry of current crisis.

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Marta Pacheco is the Brussels Morning European Commission Editor. She studied Political Science and Media & Journalism at the Catholic University of Portugal (UCP). A former Blue Book trainee of the European Commission, Marta has a keen interest in global affairs and experience in EU and diplomatic affairs reporting.