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Millions of Europeans suffer from mental health problems such as clinical depression, eating disorders and schizophrenia. Apart from the direct mental and physical effects, these conditions can impact negatively upon an individual’s social life. Given this, it is essential for societies that their citizens have access to adequate mental health services and education – as well the conditions that achieve mental well-being in the first place.

socio-economical factors and the internet cause distress

unemployment
Photo: rhodes (CC-SA)
Unemployment is one of the big causes of mental health problems among young Europeans, says a 2010 UK study. 

According to a 2010 Eurobarometer survey, since 2006 there has been a downward shift in Europeans reporting positive emotions. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that nearly 124,000 people die by suicide in Europe every year. In addition, a survey carried out by the European Commission found that one in every seven citizens surveyed had sought professional advice for an emotional problem and seven per cent had taken antidepressants during the previous 12 months.

This is a problem that must be tackled now. The economic cost of poor mental health can be a huge burden on society – let alone the social and psychological problems. According to Karol Balfe, Amnesty International Ireland's mental health campaign coordinator, in countries such as Ireland, the bulk of this cost "occurs outside the health sector, particularly in the labour market as a result of lost employment, absenteeism, lost productivity and premature retirement as well as in premature mortality."

So, what are the causes of poor mental health? A 2010 UK study revealed that almost half of unemployed young people believed joblessness caused them mental health problems such as self-harm, panic attacks or insomnia, while 41 per cent of young people not in work, education or training claimed to have felt suicidal. According to Mary Van Dievel, director of Mental Health Europe (MHE), young people with mental health problems "are less likely to gain meaningful employment because of stigma and discrimination, while unemployed young people are more prone to developing mental health problems themselves."

The increasing ubiquity of the internet has also been harmful for young people. Gaming, although not recognised in the International Classification of Diseases, can cause attention deficit disorder, according to one mental health specialist. For young people, sitting in front of computer and television screens for long periods may result in the neglect of their social relationships, which can be quite harmful for their mental well-being – something most of us are guilty of.

"People, and these includes policy makers, also believe that mental health problems are rare, while in reality one in four Europeans will have some sort of mental health problem during the course of their lives."

Van Dievel points out the detrimental effect drugs and alcohol can have, as well as socio-economic circumstances, education and even what someone eats. "Living in a poorer area of a city can decrease someone's life expectancy by 10-15 years," says Van Dievel, "and of course, make them more prone to health problems of any kind."

Stigma and funding obstruct policy reform 

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Photo: reuben (CC-NC)
Across Europe, there are different styles of treatment for mental illnesses. Many European countries have an overreliance on medication and hospitalisation while others support family-oriented approaches.

Van Dievel also says there is still a lot of stigma attached to mental health problems across Europe. "People, and these includes policy makers, also believe that mental health problems are rare," she says, "while in reality one in four Europeans will have some sort of mental health problem during the course of their lives."

John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, says the diversity in health systems across the EU means that there are different national approaches and traditions when it comes to mental health – with reforms of mental health services more advanced in some countries than others. Speaking to E&M, Commissioner Dalli said, "A key element of reform in mental health services … is the advancement of community-based mental healthcare – moving towards out-patient rather than in-patient care as far as possible."

A researcher in the Central Institute of Mental Health (CIMH) in Germany says countries across Europe have different approaches to the "common label" of mental health. "The Southern and Eastern European countries spend less on mental health services than, say, central Europe or Scandinavia, but there is more of a family-oriented approach to the post-discharge period," the researcher says. "In countries like Spain and Greece, the patient lives with their family after they are discharged (out-patient), who support them. We do not have this in countries like Germany or Switzerland where the patient will stay in a rehabilitation centre (in-patient)." Many European countries have an overreliance on medication and hospitalisation.

Another big problem is involuntary admission to psychiatric wards, where mentally ill people are kept against their will – an act many believe denies those individuals their human rights. Commissioner Dalli would not comment on whether involuntary admission to psychiatric wards violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

The stigma associated with mental health is one of the main obstacles in tackling the problem Europe-wide, along with the problem of funding. Commissioner Dalli said, "Indeed, providing quality care is an ever-present challenge to the budgets and resources of the Member States. This is accentuated even further by the economic crisis. In addition, the stigma associated with mental health problems means that sufferers often do not seek help."

"In countries like Spain and Greece, the patient lives with their family after they are discharged [...] We do not have this in countries like Germany or Switzerland where the patient will stay in a rehabilitation centre."
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