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European Commission spending €1.23bn to reform EU’s mental health

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The European Commission (EC) announced a landmark mental health strategy to confront what has been termed as a “silent epidemic”, backed by €1.23 billion in funding.

Recognizing mental health as a fundamental pillar of overall health, the Commission has proposed an expansive, cross-sectoral initiative that seeks to transform the way mental health is addressed in the European Union.

Mental health is more than an individual or familial issue; it significantly impacts our economies and societies. According to the Commission, mental health issues have touched approximately 84 million people in the EU prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, at a staggering cost of approximately €600 billion annually – over 4% of the GDP. The workplace hasn’t been spared either, with 27% of workers reporting experiencing work-related stress, depression, or anxiety.

However, mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s shaped by various personal and external factors. Recent crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and the escalating triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, have all compounded these challenges. The Commission highlighted how the pandemic particularly impacted young people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions. For instance, suicide has become the second leading cause of death among young people in the EU, aged 15-19 years. Moreover, increased digitalisation, demographic changes, and shifts in the labour market have presented a complex web of challenges and opportunities.

Behind these figures are millions of “personal stories”, including those of children and teenagers becoming overly reliant on digital devices, socially excluded individuals, elderly people experiencing loneliness, workers battling burnout, and individuals feeling isolated due to their identity or location. The announcement particularly underscores the importance of early intervention, preventive measures, high-quality and affordable mental healthcare, and societal reintegration post-recovery.

In response to this urgent call for action, and recognizing the fundamental rights of all EU citizens to access preventive health care and high-quality treatment, President von der Leyen announced the Commission’s new goal – ‘Promoting our European way of life’. The new strategy focuses on three guiding principles: the right to access adequate and effective prevention, the right to access high-quality and affordable mental health care, and the ability to reintegrate into society after recovery.

The initiative is comprehensive, calling for collaboration among national and regional actors, health and non-health policy sectors, and various stakeholders ranging from patient and civil society organizations to academia and industry. The shared objective is to “equip these entities with the tools necessary to drive change and boost existing structures at a global level”.

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Importantly, the Commission’s new strategy will support Member States in their efforts to meet the World Health Organization’s targets for non-communicable diseases by 2025 and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Campaigners, include Mental Health Europe (MHE) have argued for exactly this kind of development – addressing mental health within a broader societal and economic context. By calling for a coordinated, cross-sectoral approach and laying out a clear path towards improvement, it has the potential to bring about a paradigm shift in mental health care across the European Union. Some stakeholders, however, have called for further measures, including concrete objectives, benchmarks, indicators, and progress monitoring mechanisms for member states.

As part of the new effort, the EU plans to funnel €10 million into bolstering mental health in communities, focusing on vulnerable populations like children, young adults, and migrant or refugee populations. Personal mental health development must also not be neglected and should include the propagation of stress-relieving techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or habits such as journalling, sleeping well and using stress relievers such as stress balls or chewing sugar-free gum, as researchers believe that the act of chewing increases focus by reducing stress and anxiety.

Significantly, the strategy also seeks to break the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health. Commissioner Kyriakides stressed the need for greater acceptance and understanding, stating, “It is ok not to be ok.”

The EC’s Vice-President Margaritis Schinas warned against expecting so-called quick fixes, stating, “There is no happiness button to push.” The overarching goal is to integrate mental health across all policy areas, from education and environment to employment and the digital world, indicating that mental health is not just a health issue, but a societal one. The strategy reflects a shift towards recognizing mental health as equally important as physical health, a necessary shift to better address the ‘silent epidemic’ afflicting millions across the EU.

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