Mental Health – a pandemic we can prepare for

By Maria Walsh, MEP (EPP Group, Fine Gael Party - Ireland), Co-chair MEP Alliance for Mental Health

Mental health does not exist in isolation. Therefore, its management and treatment cannot be considered in isolation. Mental ill-health impacts every aspect of a person’s life: education, employment, personal relationships, consumption behaviour, access to healthcare and social services. By not approaching mental health as a holistic priority area, we risk creating a two-tier society where only those privileged few who are in a position to manage their mental health effectively are able to thrive and those who are not able to manage their mental health are left behind.

It is only by making mental health a priority in every area of policymaking that we can offer real solutions to people’s real problems.

Mental ill-health presents a major challenge to the well-being of our society, and the strength of our economy. It hinders and can destroy lives, traps people in poverty and prevents our countries from harnessing the talents and potential of hundreds of thousands of people. I have seen this first hand. Within a 20 to 30 mile radius of the small village where I live in Ireland, 20 people have died by suicide in the last decade. While we are making slow progress in policy-making that can affect real change on the ground, we have to think laterally, across sectors and policy areas to find holistic solutions for Europeans’ whole lives.

European governments are slowly responding to citizens’ needs for effective mental health care within their healthcare systems. But little thought or action has been given to preventative or integrated care within other sectors. Recent research from Koa Health in the UK has shown that mental health is not a “cultural priority” for 43% of employers. This admission came despite 56% of organisations witnessing a rise in demand for mental health support from their staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us a glaring need to reflect on how we develop policy relating to mental health.

The European Commission, for example, has granted €33 million under Horizon 2020 to fund research on behavioural, social and economic impacts of the outbreak response. One of the funded projects, RESPOND, aims to identify vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic and evaluate its impact on mental health and well-being.

We must capitalise on the current momentum. This is why we have started a call for a dedicated ‘EU Year of Good Mental Health’, to raise awareness of all aspects of mental health policy, encourage debate in our Institutions and in our Member States and, change the prevailing attitudes towards mental health across the EU.

This EU Year of Good Mental Health would send a strong commitment and political signal from the EU institutions and member governments that mental health will be taken into consideration in future policy-making. Taking the words from Commissioner Kyriakides to ensure ‘mental health is threaded across many policies’. We must make mental health everyone’s business.

At European level, more and more politicians and leaders are putting Europeans’ mental health at the heart of policy areas that would not have previously considered mental health within their remit.

The employment directive on the Right to Disconnect is an excellent example of a modern solution. This policy spans the areas of employment, technology, economy, civil liberties, and health. This is how we should be tackling mental health policy: with cross-sectoral input, private and public cooperation, and innovative ideas that benefit more than just the social and healthcare sectors.

We have a unique opportunity to adjust our policies for the ‘new normal’. Some things will never return to the way they were, like the nature of work. It is essential that all EU policymakers, including us MEPs, look at our future policy work through this lens.

We need to rethink our current policies if we are going to solve the mental health crisis that the pandemic has triggered. Even more than treatment or preventative healthcare, we need policies that tackle the root causes of mental ill-health: poverty, deprivation, discrimination, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities. These are the biggest determinants of our mental ill-health.

We, as policymakers, must remain accountable on mental health and bring real-life solutions to our citizens within a health programme that considers mental health as important as physical health.

The primary objective for my work on mental health within the European Parliament, is calling for the development of a comprehensive and proactive EU Mental Health Strategy, taking into account the cross-sectoral impacts of different policies on mental health. By doing so, the EU can improve the lives of millions of Europeans – inclusive of those affected by mental ill-health, their families, and the services and supports who care for both. Contributing to a stronger economy, social cohesion and sustainable development.

Without mental health we cannot have a solid health base. Mental health does not see borders, or a person’s skin colour, or orientation or gender. It does not see where one community starts and ends. It is our citizens that are at risk if we don’t get this right. Mental health is everyone’s business.