Mental Health: the urge for EU action 

The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 triggered an epidemic of another kind: mental health issues. This was due to many reasons from social isolation measures to disruption of care and therapies and anxiety and fear due to the rising death toll of the virus. In some way or another, a large portion of society’s mental health deteriorated during this unprecedented period. As a result, and perhaps as a silver lining too, mental health was pushed into the spotlight of public health. This contributed to breaking the stigma and taboo surrounding these issues, as shown by the success of the Korean drama series released in June 2020 entitled It’s Okay to Not Be Okay. 

What exactly is mental health? 

It is important to specify that mental health is routinely used as an umbrella term to refer to a lot of different conditions from mental illnesses, also called mental health disorders (depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, PTSD, eating disorders…) to mental health concerns (not an illness). A mental health concern can become a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect a person’s ability to function. 

Mental health disorders can affect anybody independent of age, gender, sexual orientation or social class. Besides, most people will experience mental health concerns at some point in their life, which can be triggered by certain physical diseases, life events or environmental/societal norms. Therefore, mental health concerns much more than the 84 million people who are struggling with mental health problems. 

What is the EU doing? 

The EU institutions are well aware of this matter. The European Parliament repeatedly (in 2020 and 2022) called on the Commission to put forward initiatives on mental health. The MEPs demands were heard, and, on 7th June 2023, the European Commission published a Communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health. In the document, the Commission chose a broad definition of mental health: “a state of well-being in which individuals realise their own abilities and can cope with the stresses of life and contribute to community life.” 

The Commission’s approach encompasses 3 guiding principles: 

  1. Access to adequate and effective prevention 
  1. Access to high quality and affordable care and treatment 
  1. Be able to reintegrate society after recovery 

In order to facilitate European cooperation on these elements, the Commission will notably: 

  • Create an EU repository compiling Member States’ best practices to learn from each other and guide people towards effective care (hotlines, help points, etc) 
  • Invite Member Stares to create national websites to help people navigate through available support services 
  • Create a research ecosystem on brain health to bring researchers and stakeholders together to facilitate and coordinate activities to maximise research investments 

The Commission’s work will also focus on youth because children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable. It will: 

  • Create a child and youth mental health network to exchange information, mutual support and outreach via youth ambassadors 
  • Develop a prevention toolkit focusing on early intervention of children at risk. Special attention will be paid to school bullying. 

Moreover, the Commission highlighted the link with its approach on Mental Health and the ongoing revision of the Victim’s rights directive which aims to make psychological aid free of charge for as long as necessary for all victims in need of such help. 

Besides, the Commission also intends to help young cancer survivors with a platform to help them to boost their mental health, via the Horizon Europe Cancer Mission. The Commission will also financially support Member States to provide psychological support to cancer patients, their caretakers and families. 

Another element the Commission intends to tackle is mental health in the workplace by: 

  • Conducting a peer review of national approaches on psychosocial risks at work in the different Member States, with the aim to later present an EU-level initiative on the matter. 
  • Strengthening training for healthcare and other professionals, such as teachers and social workers. A new cross border exchange programme for mental health professionals will also be launched. 

On 30th November, the Council adopted its Conclusions on mental health. The Conclusions invite Member States to elaborate actions plans with a cross-sectoral approach to mental health, addressing not only health, but also employment, education, digitalisation and AI, culture, environment and climate factors. 

Importantly the Council called on the Commission to publish a report with a timetable for implementation and allocated financial budgets for all the measures presented in its 7th June Communication.  

What is the budget of the EU actions? 

The total EU budget for support to mental health is 1.23 billion EUR. It will finance activities directly or indirectly promoting mental health, from research to awareness campaigns to psychological support to cancer patients and Ukrainian refugees. 

This funding is dispersed in many programmes: EU4Health, Recovery & Resilience Facility, Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, ESF+, ERDF, TSI, Creative Europe, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Citizenship, Equality, Rights and Value Programme and EU-OSHA (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work). 

What about medication? 

It is safe to safe to say that the Commission tried to publish a “catch-all” Communication that addresses a lot of different groups and aspects related to mental health. However, an issue that is not mentioned is the use of psychedelics and drugs for treatment. Is seeing a psychologist enough? Of course, if a person can overcome their mental health issues without any drug, this is a fantastic outcome. But one must acknowledge that sometimes the use of medication is necessary and can be lifesaving. In 2020, 194 000 people died from mental and behavioural disorders in the EU. This failure to specifically mention access to drugs as an important part of treatment is worrying.  

In May 2023, the Parliament launched a MEP Action Group for the Medical Use of Psychedelics with the aim to decrease the stigma associated with the use of psychedelic medicines, so that Member States incorporate it in their debate. Recent scientific research has shown psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies can be highly effective treatments for mental health conditions, but Europe is trailing behind. MEPs urged the European Medicines Agency and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction to play a more active role in the advancement of psychedelic research. 

A drop in the ocean 

Another element that concerned us is the budget announced by the Commission for the 2021-2027 period. 1.23 billion EUR may seem like a lot of money. But compared to what inaction on mental health costs to the European countries (600 billion EUR), it is a drop in the ocean. To put this 1.23 billion in perspective, the total budget of the EU4Health Programme, the EU’s response to COVID-19, is 5.3 billion EUR. The overall budget of the EU is 2.018 trillion EUR. 

This is particularly worrying when we consider the huge scale of the problem and the clear unmet needs of millions of citizens. 

Health is a new area of action for the EU, therefore its spending is still limited. Indeed, public health is a shared competence: while the EU can foster research and sharing of best practices, it is still up to a country to decide how to prevent and treat an illness. When Covid-19 arrived in Europe there was a huge debate to know if the EU could intervene or if Member States had to manage on their own. Eventually it was decided that coordinated action would be more efficient in eradicating the virus. Covid-19 proved that when Member States agree to give decision power on an illness to the EU and pull-up their resources, Europe can put an end to a public health issue. A Health Union works and is desperately needed. EU citizens need political will from their government to effectively address mental health issues at the EU level and dedicate money to it. 

What more can the EU do? 

Mental health is so wide, targeted actions should be favoured compared to a Communication that tries to tackle everything. Moreover, while it is commendable that the Commission addresses mental health across policies, the scale of the problem justifies a specific programme for this issue.  

Due to the multicausal nature of mental health disorders, prevention and treatment require high investments. While the EU can foster research on some factors such as genetics and brain chemistry. Some factors are more linked to the society we live in. Therefore, changing them is a long-term effort. This doesn’t mean the EU has no role in preventing some situations, such as protecting children and other vulnerable groups. 

If your company or organisation is involved in mental health and would like to raise the bar in the EU on this crucial issue, please do not hesitate to contact us. Lykke Advice can help you make your voice heard by EU policymakers, contributing to a healthier future for all.   


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *