Being mentally healthy means being capable of self-realisation, being at ease when forming relationships with others, contributing to community life and being productive at work. The impact of poor mental health can affect people throughout their life course.
In the State of the European Union speech in September 2022, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the Commission’s intention to present a new comprehensive approach to mental health in 2023. This proposal responds to the Conference on the Future of Europe conclusions, which call upon initiatives to improve the understanding of mental health issues and ways of addressing them.
The Health at a Glance Europe 2018 report highlighted that mental health problems affect about 84 million people across the EU. In addition to personal suffering, mental health problems have financial implications for our society. The total costs of mental health problems are estimated at more than 4% of GDP (more than €600 billion) across the 27 EU countries and the United Kingdom.
The 2022 Health at a Glance report showed that almost one in two young Europeans report unmet needs for mental health care, and the share of young people reporting symptoms of depression in several EU countries more than doubled during the pandemic.
While many countries have implemented measures to protect and care for young people’s mental health, the magnitude of the pandemic’s impact warrants further action to prevent permanent scars on this generation. This requires a shift of prioritisation towards prevention: to tackle behavioural and environmental risk factors and to have more ambitious actions on health promotion and disease prevention. The report also shows that there are well founded concerns regarding the critical importance of early experiences in shaping health and well-being later in life.
Mental health is influenced by many factors, including genetic predisposition, socio-economic background, adverse childhood experiences, chronic medical conditions or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
Policies in areas such as education, employment, or social protection can positively impact our mental health and well-being and support mental health resilience, especially when implemented early in life. This complexity needs to be considered when developing a comprehensive approach to mental health and implementing effective interventions to mitigate mental health challenges.
Healthier Together Initiative
Such a comprehensive approach to mental health is informed and supported by Healthier Together - the Commission’s EU Non-Communicable Diseases Initiative presented in June 2022. This initiative supports EU countries in identifying and implementing effective policies and actions to reduce the burden of major NCDs and improve citizens’ health and well-being, while also reducing health inequalities.
‘Mental health and neurological disorders’ form one of five key strands addressed by this initiative. Following a co-creation process with EU countries and stakeholders, the initiative supports the implementation of high-impact actions across the entire spectrum from encouraging well-being and proactive prevention through to social inclusion of people with long-term conditions. The initiative’s work on mental health will cluster around four priority areas:
- Supporting favourable conditions for mental health and increasing resilience, implementing mental-health-in-all policies
- Promoting mental well-being and preventing mental health disorders
- Improving timely and equitable access to high quality mental health services
- Protecting rights, enhancing social inclusion, and tackling stigma associated with mental health problems
Action on these areas is already ongoing and will continue until 2027.
Overview of actions
The European Commission has long been dedicated to improving the mental health of the population, as it is possible to understand through an overview of the past activities.
The Commission’s work on non-communicable diseases and mental health builds on international policy frameworks, notably the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 9 global voluntary targets set by the World Health Organization on Non-Communicable Diseases. The Commission’s efforts focus on supporting and complementing EU countries' policies.
The Steering Group on Health Promotion, Disease Prevention and Management of Non-Communicable Diseases (SGPP - an expert group with representatives from EU countries’ health ministries) was formally established in 2018 to support Member States in reaching the health targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.
In 2018, the SGPP prioritized mental health as the area for best practice implementation. In May 2019, a pre-selection of best practices was presented to EU countries who then ranked them according to the relevance to their national priorities.
The three practices that received the highest ranking are implemented with financial support via the Third Health Programme’s 2020 Annual Work Plan. These are:
- a mental health system reform focusing on strengthening client-centered community-based services, as developed in Belgium
- a multi-level national suicide prevention programme developed in Austria
- a step-wise intervention programme to tackle depression, developed through European collaboration
Work on this started in 2021, with the Joint Action ImpleMENTAL rolling out (elements of) the Belgian mental health system reform as well as the Austrian suicide prevention programme. This action brings a total of 21 countries together (supported by financial contribution of €5.4 million). The depression intervention is being implemented via the European Alliance Against Depression-Best project, in which 10 countries participate, supported by an EC financial contribution of €1.6 million.
The WHO Regional Office for Europe supports the Joint Action ImpleMENTAL’s efforts as regards training and capacity building, via a contribution agreement with a value of €1 million under the EU4Health 2022 work plan.
Contributing to the European Year of Youth, two new projects aim to improve the mental health of children, young people and their families through the implementation of best practice. The practices concerned are:
- a sport-based support programme to improve life skills and social, psychological and emotional resources among socially vulnerable children and adolescents, and
- a two-step intervention to support mental health and wellbeing of young people and their families in vulnerable situations.
The EC financial contribution to this work will be €8 million in total, under the EU4Health 2022 work plan.
Supporting Ukraine – mental health of displaced people and refugees
The Commission has mobilised €9 million from the EU4Health programme to help people fleeing Ukraine in urgent need of mental health and trauma support.
More specifically, a €7 million contribution agreement has been signed with the International Federation of Red Cross to directly help people who have fled Ukraine to deal with the trauma they have suffered and offer them mental health support. The EU countries where the Red Cross is working are Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechia and Slovakia.
Ukraine’s displaced people are also the focus of a €2 million call for proposals from non-governmental organisations for best practices to improve mental health and psychological wellbeing in the migrant and refugee populations. This work is expected to start in autumn 2022.
In addition, the Commission offers a range of online courses and other training material on migrant health via the websites of the ECDC’s Virtual Academy and the network Migration and health: training for professionals on the Health Policy Platform.
These courses were developed with the support from the Third Health Programme.
The network Supporting Ukraine, neighbouring EU Member States and Moldova on the Health Policy Platform has been established to combine the efforts of civil society, patient groups and health professionals to meet the medical needs of Ukraine society and of displaced people.
- Horizon 2020 projects:
- Commission actions on migrants' health
Mental health and COVID-19
The pandemic and its aftermath increased the burden on the mental health services.
The Health at a Glance Europe 2020 report noted that the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis caused a growing burden on the mental well-being of the citizens, with evidence of higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression. Young people and people in lower-income groups being considered at increased risk. Disruptions to health care for those with pre-existing mental health conditions constitute a significant part of the negative impact that the pandemic had on mental health.
A few months after the onset of the pandemic, the department for Health and Food Safety set up a dedicated network space on its Health Policy Platform for health and social stakeholder organisations to exchange specific mental health practice and knowledge related to COVID-19. Co-ordinated by Mental Health Europe, this virtual network includes a focus on the needs of vulnerable groups such as the homeless, people with pre-existing conditions, and older people. The web space also holds a virtual library.
Action grants are set up to support the implementation of best practices on the ground with direct impact on the effort to tackle mental health challenges during COVID-19.
The EU4Health 2021 annual work programme supports the implementation of best practices on the ground with direct impact on the effort to tackle mental health challenges during COVID-19 by an EC financial contribution totaling €750 000. Awarded projects are expected to start in the autumn of 2022.
The Commission rewarded community-based initiatives alleviating the mental health impact of COVID-19 via its 2021 EU Health award. The award ceremony took place in 4 May 2022: prize winning and shortlisted initiatives are presented in a booklet awarded initiatives on mental health impact of COVID-19.