Coronavirus: why the EU must protect people with mental ill-health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Demand for mental health support is likely to rise sharply in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The EU must act to protect and support its people, writes Claudia Marinetti. [Africa Studio/Shutterstock]

Demand for mental health support is likely to rise sharply in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The EU must act to protect and support its people, writes Claudia Marinetti.

Claudia Marinetti is the Director of Mental Health Europe

Europe is going through one of the gravest crises in recent history. COVID-19 magnifies the vulnerability of our health, the economy and society. The pandemic also illustrates how disproportionate is its impact on populations in vulnerable situations, including people with mental ill-health. Growing levels of stress and anxiety are the tip of the iceberg. Social isolation from coronavirus is likely to fuel a rise in demand for mental health support. We should not underestimate the far-stretching mental health implications of the coronavirus crisis. The mental health cost of COVID-19 crisis will play out in the years, if not decades, to come.

Every sixth adult in the European Union alone was affected by mental ill-health before the COVID-19 outbreak – that’s more than 84 million people. The economic impact of poor mental health cost the EU 4% of GDP in lost productivity and social costs. With COVID-19 plunging the world economy into a recession, social and economic disparities will only exacerbate the pandemic’s impact on mental health. Women falling victim to domestic violence, elderly people, youth and low-wage workers: the global outbreak of COVID-19 puts every generation at a higher risk.

For people struggling to cope mentally with COVID-19, challenges are compounded. In Belgium, for example, 40 mental health organisations are alarmed by the disruption of mental health services. Almost all face-to-face therapies have been cancelled due to staff shortage or for hygiene reasons. 60% of mental health service users in the Netherlands reported partial or entire suspension of their treatment. 80% of the respondents could not access daily care. Some services are only available at certain hours. They, in principle, aim to provide continuity, but do not address the needs of people who are going through a crisis. Having no access to these vital services leaves thousands of people experiencing high levels of mental distress without the care they so urgently need.

People with severe mental health problems have little power over protecting themselves if they have to stay in institutions. The current pandemic leaves them vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. They are at particular risk of contracting the virus due to flaws in mental health care systems, as a result of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.  In France, social care institutions have been locked in response to the coronavirus pandemic. A lack of supervision by their families due to isolation exposes people living in institutions to ill-treatment. Similarly, in Greece, psychiatric units have locked people in their rooms depriving them of phone and internet access. Such inhumane measures put people with mental health problems at a higher risk of psychological distress and physical danger while stripping them of their rights and dignity.

What can be done?

Despite the tragic circumstances, there are some lessons that the EU can already draw for the future. First and foremost, mental health needs to become part of a stronger, coordinated action. A European response, not fragmented national efforts, is essential to counter the negative effects of the COVID-19 on mental health.

Second, the European Union must take swift action and rethink priorities of its health agenda. This includes adopting comprehensive long-term strategies to mitigate the health and socio-economic consequences of the current crisis on people with mental ill-health. Investing in mental health can bring a positive impact on the labour market and economy at large. The EU must also address structural discrimination, practices of exclusion and discriminatory legislation. If we want to ensure that the coronavirus crisis does not become a long-term mental health crisis, we must provide a human rights-based response to this pandemic: prioritising people over profit, encompassing the whole community and including the needs of people with psychosocial disabilities.

Once we get past this critical period, the EU must focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies to become more resilient against pandemics and the many other global challenges that confront us. We are only as strong as the most vulnerable in our society. With concerted cross-sectoral EU action on mental health, we can turn the COVID-19 crisis into a catalyst for positive change.

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