It is becoming common knowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic exacted an enormous toll on the mental health of people across Europe. Social isolation, depression and anxiety increased as the healthcare systems designed to support people experiencing these issues were disrupted.
The question is whether we can act with the urgency necessary to blunt the long-term impact of increased incidence of mental health issues, now that the end of the pandemic is within sight. It will take policymakers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), health systems and the private sector working together and leveraging data to make this happen.
Even before the pandemic, of course, the effects of mental health issues in Europe were obvious. Studies indicated that in 2018, one out of six Europeans had been affected by mental health issues. In addition, according to an OECD report, experts estimated that lower employment and productivity from people experiencing psychological disorders cost countries €260 billion.
Then came COVID-19. Significant majorities in a number of EU countries indicated that the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health, according to one January 2021 survey. Additionally, a study conducted in the summer of 2020 found that across 26 countries, for people 50 years of age and older who had previously experienced depressed mood or anxiety, the pandemic exacerbated symptoms for 64% of those experiencing depressed mood and 73% of those experiencing anxiety symptoms. Meanwhile, almost half of European countries reported disruptions to mental health services, according to a recent WHO survey.
The data clearly indicates that improving mental health support for women in particular should be a priority. In Europe, many more men died from COVID-19 than women, but women have endured a disproportionate share of the psychological impact – in the workplace and at home.
Women comprise the majority of healthcare workers, 72 percent in Spain, for example, which exposed them to prolonged periods of stress during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, subsequent studies of healthcare workers have shown increased rates of depression, insomnia and anxiety. Meanwhile, at home, quarantines have resulted in increased incidence of domestic violence, up 30 percent in France, for example, according to one United Nations report. Concerningly, those numbers appear to be consistent across countries that report intimate partner violence.
These numbers lead to the undeniable conclusion. Mental health must be address, now, with a renewed sense of urgency if we are to mitigate the long-term impacts to individuals, families and European economies.
One way to address this growing crisis, is by taking full advantage of available data to ensure that resources are deployed and investments are made effectively. Women Political Leaders (WPL), with the support of Centene Corporation, a multi-national healthcare enterprise, undertook a project in 2020 to provide policymakers and healthcare leaders with up-to-date data regarding mental healthcare in Europe. This project and the resulting report focused on five areas of mental healthcare key to ensuring a comprehensive overview: Awareness, Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability, and Affordability. The report and other projects like it can offer insights and data to help formulate approaches for the improvement of health systems at the national level, as well as offering evidence to guide the shaping of future healthcare solutions.
Governments, NGOs, health systems and the private sector all have a role to play if we are to repair the damage COVID-19 did to Europeans’ mental health. Policymakers, NGOs and employers can help to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Health systems can efficiently reallocate resources that have been diverted to fund pandemic response. Governments can leverage the best available data so that they’re addressing the problems as they are, not as they are perceived to be.
So much is at stake. We must not only get the response right. We must do so with unprecedented urgency.