Laura Marchetti and Jennifer Oroilidis at Mental Health Europe put forward the case for a European Union Mental Health Strategy
Positive mental health is key to our well-being. It is just as important as our physical health; in fact, the two are closely related. On the one hand, physical illnesses are often linked with mental health problems such as depression. On the other hand, at least 45% of people with mental health problems additionally develop chronic physical illnesses. People’s well-being is a human right enshrined in the Treaty of the European Union (EU). The EU has a responsibility to ensure the mental health of its citizens. For vulnerable groups, young Europeans and all: it is high time for an EU mental health strategy.
A psychosocial approach instead of the biomedical model
Mental health is not solely about health or the absence of it but rather about social factors and barriers we face as human beings. Organisations like Mental Health Europe advocate for a psychosocial approach to mental health – instead of defining mental ill-health as a ‘disease’ or ‘illness’ caused by purely biological factors, it looks at a person’s life and social environment since these aspects are equally crucial in understanding well-being.
“As a medical doctor I am confident that a biomedical model of mental health is far from being enough when we aim to tackle the full range of mental health problems in our societies,” said Meri Larivaara, a Senior Advisor at Mental Health Finland (MIELI) and a Board Member of Mental Health Europe, at the European Parliament event “Shaping the future EU Mental Health Strategy” on 18 February 2020 in Brussels. “A psychosocial approach considers mental health as a result of enabling factors and barriers in society and sees mental health as a resource.”
Additionally, effective mental health policies are needed regarding employment.
The business case for promoting mental health
Modern workplaces face great challenges linked to the mental health and wellbeing of workers and employees. Mental ill-health implies enormous costs for individuals, employers and society. Work-related mental ill-health annual total costs may amount to up to €610 billion to the European economy. The 2018 Health at a Glance report states that 1.6% of EU GDP (€240 billion) is lost in costs related to the impact of mental ill-health on the labour market.
The data speaks volumes: positive mental health of employees saves costs and increases growth in both the short- and long-term. The European economy would benefit immensely from effective mental health policies in the workplace. A mentally healthy workplace is a right that should be reachable by all in fair, cohesive societies.
When it comes to human rights, however, disadvantaged groups are especially threatened by mental distress.
Vulnerable groups at risk of mental ill-health
Refugees and migrants are at a heightened risk of mental health problems as they face numerous obstacles in hot spots, reception centres and throughout the integration process. The lack of necessary support can lead to social exclusion and negatively impact their mental wellbeing.
Furthermore, one in five adolescents in Europe are affected by at least one mental health problem each year. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability among adolescents, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. Evidence shows that mental health problems developed during adolescence can continue into adulthood. Researchers, organisations and health professionals are calling for appropriate prevention and care for young people.
Finland, Belgium and Norway have national mental health strategies in place that can serve as a model for an overarching European initiative.
Member States lead the way in mental health
Finland’s national mental health strategy emphasises the impact of mental health on health, well-being, studies, work and life. Mental health is seen as a capital that should be invested in. Since the building blocks for good mental health are laid in childhood and adolescence, the strategy includes prevention and support for children and young people. It focuses on combatting stigmatisation and discrimination. Coordinated services are important to correspond to people’s needs while mental health workplace policies are crucial for the prosperity of any society.
Another example of an effective national strategy for mental health is Norway’s initiative. It also includes research and innovation in mental health, mainstreaming of mental health policies in all public sectors and meaningful participation of people with lived experience of mental ill-health.
The Belgian reform regarding community-based care centred around people with mental ill-health is also a step in the right direction. Mobile teams provide long-term and emergency mental health care through outreach services, prevention, primary care, day care, housing and social care services.
The examples above show that some Member States are taking the initiative to address the problems related to mental ill-health. Yet, individual and isolated action cannot be considered as an efficient and sustainable solution for what we have seen above to be a widespread, European challenge, with consequences spanning from social exclusion to financial losses. There is a need for a Mental Health Strategy led and coordinated by the EU to ensure social cohesion and sustainable development.
The EU can improve the lives of millions of Europeans. By investing in mental health, it can bring a positive impact on the labour market and contribute to a stronger economy. Overall, there is extensive evidence backing this call to action. The EU is facing a crucial decision: will it seize the opportunity to ensure the protection of mental health for all its citizens?
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