Mental health is influenced by many factors, including genetic predisposition, socio-economic background, adverse childhood experiences, chronic medical conditions or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
Therefore, mental health and well-being are interlinked issues that are affected by policies and actions in a range of sectors, including education, health, employment, social inclusion and efforts to tackle poverty.
This relationship is reciprocal: without adequate mental health prevention, support and treatment, the risks of poorer education or unemployment increase.
To be mentally healthy means being capable of self-realisation, being at ease when forming the relationships with other people, to contribute to the life in the community and being productive at work. A mentally healthy individual is also able to overcome normal tensions, sorrows and life setbacks.
Already prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of mental health of the population in Europe was a cause for concern. A dedicated chapter in the Health at a Glance Europe 2018 report highlighted that mental health problems affect about 84 million people across the EU. The total costs of mental ill health are estimated at more than 4% of GDP (more than EUR 600 billion) across the 28 EU countries.
Mental health and COVID-19
The pandemic aggravated the situation by causing fear, creating isolation, insecurity, loss of stability, income and loss of loved ones.
The Health at a Glance Europe 2020 report noted that the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis caused a growing burden on the mental well-being of the citizens, with evidence of higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression. Young people and people in lower-income groups being considered at increased risk. Disruptions to health care for those with pre-existing mental health conditions constitute a significant part of the negative impact that the pandemic had on mental health.
The mental health challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is getting more and more complex, urging the European Commission to find answers to its immediate and long-term consequences. DG SANTE has set up a dedicated network space on its Health Policy Platform for health and social stakeholder organisations to exchange specific mental health practice and knowledge related to COVID-19.
Co-ordinated by Mental Health Europe, this virtual network includes a focus on the needs of vulnerable groups such as the homeless, people with pre-existing conditions, and older people. The web space also holds a virtual library.
A first webinar to share the results of an initial mapping exercise was held on 16 October 2020, focusing on the mental health needs of healthcare workers.
The European Commission has always been dedicated to improving the mental health of the population, as it is possible to understand through an overview of the past activities.
The Commission’s work on non-communicable diseases and mental health builds on international policy frameworks, notably the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 9 global voluntary targets set by the World Health Organization on Non-Communicable Diseases. The Commission’s efforts focus on supporting and complementing EU countries' policies.
The Steering Group on Health Promotion, Disease Prevention and Management of Non-Communicable Diseases (SGPP - an expert group with representatives from EU countries’ health ministries) was formally established in 2018 to support Member States in reaching the health targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Commission presents to the Steering Group best practices and approaches selected according to national and EU priorities. EU countries then indicate which of those they are interested in implementing or scaling-up.
Open, as well as targeted, calls for best practices are published in the Best Practice Portal. It also provides an overview of practices collected and transmitted in actions co-funded under the Health Programmes.
In 2018, the SGPP prioritized mental health as the area for best practice implementation. In May 2019, a pre-selection of best practices was presented to EU countries who then ranked them according to the relevance to their national priorities.
Financial support has been made available via the Health Programme’s 2020 Annual Work Plan to co-fund the implementation of three practices that received the highest ranking:
- a mental health system reform focusing on strengthening client-centered community-based services, as developed in Belgium
- a multi-level national suicide prevention programme developed in Austria
- a step-wise intervention programme to tackle depression, developed through European collaboration
A proposal for a Joint Action (ImpleMENTAL) to roll out the mental health system reform and suicide prevention examples is being rolled-out in 2021. The step-wise intervention programme to tackle depression will be implemented via the EEAD-Best project.
EU’s efforts in the field of mental health aim to support real action on the ground where it matters most to EU countries.