By Federico N. Fernández, We Are Innovation
Despite grasping the core of the crisis, the EU’s novel approach seems to sidestep the most effective antidotes.
The European Union’s (EU) commitment to addressing mental health has finally become manifest, given the formal proclamation made by President Ursula Von der Leyen. The new set of objectives, bolstered by a noteworthy €1.23 billion allocation, are an indication of the EU’s belated, yet considerable, commitment to this pressing issue.
Mental health issues affect 27 percent of all workers in the EU, and approximately 84 million people suffered even before the pandemic lockdowns. Lockdowns severed critical sources of joy and purpose for millions, with a “silent epidemic” of loneliness and anxiety attributable to the lost Covid years, especially amongst the young and the already socially vulnerable.
The EU is also acutely aware of the economic burden of mental ill health. Around €600 billion annually – over 4 percent of the GDP – is lost due to lower productivity, labour force non-participation, and early retirement due to mental health issues. It is correct that the EU are taking it as seriously as they appear to be. The new strategy upholds three pillars for mental health; 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.
To build these pillars, the Commission aims to pull together national and supranational stakeholders, including NGOs, private sector industry, academia and the public space, and to “equip [them] with the tools necessary to drive change and boost existing structures at a global level.” The approach also includes an acknowledgement and an emphasis on how other socio-economic factors, as well as geopolitical ones such as the War in Ukraine, affect mental health on the individual level. In the view of the Commission, this means that their strategy must revolve around integrating mental health considerations into every area of public policy – education, environment, digital policy, and social policy.
The intentions here are commendable – for instance, to help prevent the deterioration of mental health conditions at school by raising awareness both of them and of the support available to treat them. This awareness could be supplemented by prevention in the truest sense, such as disseminating information about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness training which has been shown to significantly decrease the risk of developing anxiety and depression. While some practitioners recommend the construction of a ‘toolbox’ to assist with these techniques, which may include journaling, chewing sugar-free gum or a stress ball, the methods themselves are powerful, cost-free and can be practiced without governmental or clinical intervention.
The online policy will naturally include new restrictions on social media platforms. With a reinforced vigor for mental health protection, competing considerations, for instance, freedom of speech and technological innovation, must not be made to give way yet again. Note again that the Commission’s policy-making instinct is to turn to the platform holders or innovators to burden them with regulation, overlooking powerful resources for mental health protection, such as parental guidance. Even more concerning is the lack of indicators, benchmarks, or any statement of what would have to happen (or not happen) for the scheme to be considered a failure. The Commission must avoid the perception that they are allocating €1.23 billion for the sake of political approval and then thinking later about what to spend the money on.
There is another, more fundamental issue of good governance at stake here. Mission creep has been allowed to set in such that social policies with far-reaching economic ramifications are to be proposed and justified based on mental health policy when they should rightfully have to compete with alternative uses of funds like any other social policy would be made to. It may be that these policies are, in fact, the best use of public funds – mental health certainly needs greater prioritization. But the Commission must allow that debate to take place and recognize that mental health is one consideration amongst many that make a policy work – or fail.
This makes it all the more surprising that the evidence-based and budget-friendly approaches have not been placed front and center – especially during an economic recession and high inflation. Community and youth sports and personal strategies like CBT and mindfulness techniques have consistently demonstrated their potential to significantly mitigate mental health disorders, including depression, across various age demographics. The spotlight on mindfulness has notably extended to the digital realm, with meditation apps gaining substantial popularity.
Let us hope this newfound enthusiasm for improving mental health eventually leads to coalescence around these good ideas.
Federico N. Fernández is the CEO of We Are Innovation, a global network of 30+ think tanks and NGOs, He has delivered speeches and lectures across three continents, authored numerous scholarly articles, and co-edited several books on economics.