Danny Bowman is a Fellow at the RSA, Former Director of Mental Health at the Think Tank Parliament Street, Vice-Chair at Eating Disorders Charity, Male Voiced and a Recipient of the UK Prime Minister’s Touch of Light Award for his work on mental health.
The Coronavirus has brought life in Europe to a standstill, with harsh lockdown measures being implemented to control the spread of the virus. It is estimated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that almost 2 million people have contracted coronavirus with around 117,000 deaths in the EU. The coronavirus has had a substantial effect on the physical health of the European population, however Claudia Marinetti who is Director of Mental Health Europe has warned that there will be a large surge in the number of people experiencing mental health problems after the Coronavirus is gone. This poses the question of how ready European countries are to deal with the mental health aftermath of the Coronavirus?
The Effects of the Coronavirus on Mental Health
The Coronavirus has led to extreme levels of uncertainty, fear and anxiety amongst people who are concerned for the health of their loved ones and the stability of their livelihoods. Whilst experiencing these understandably difficult emotions people have been under lockdown; unable to socialise, see their close-family, study, and in most cases work. The sense of control over their own lives has been lost through hugely draconian measures brought in by governments from across the European Union to stem the spread of the virus. These measures will undoubtedly have had an impact on the average citizens mood, and in the worst-case scenarios have caused symptoms of psychiatric disorders or amplified symptoms of pre-existing mental health conditions.
How Prepared are EU Countries for the Mental Health Aftermath?
It goes without saying that one lesson we have learned from the sudden nature of the Coronavirus outbreak is the importance of being prepared. Countries across the EU were caught off guard by the physical effects of the outbreak, but we must look ahead at how prepared countries in Europe are for the mental health aftermath. Countries across the European Union are at different stages in the development of their mental health systems. The importance of having a comprehensive workforce, community-based facilities, and pursuing new digital forms of treatment have been outlined in the recent European Mental Health Action Plan (2013-2020). The availability of all of these things will be vital to addressing poor mental health in the aftermath. In examining the European countries most effected by the coronavirus and the current state of their mental health systems, we have cause to be hopeful. However, it can also be acknowledged that there remain gaps that need to be filled.
There are huge variations in the availability of mental health professionals, appropriate mental health care environments and the availability of digital provisions across the European Union. In countries like Italy and Spain there are a lower number of mental health professionals whilst in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom they have a slightly higher stock of psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health nurses. Where there are lower numbers of trained mental health professionals’ mechanisms need to be put in place, whether that be to use those currently in training to meet the need or reducing need for direct treatment by utilising digital prevention and promotional activities.
There are substantial variations in the availability of community-based mental health provisions and facilities in Europe. Italy has an enormous array of mental health prevention and promotional programs which are hopefully working virtually, to provide support across regions throughout this difficult period. However, there are huge geographical inequities in the availability of community-based facilities in Italy and across the rest of the European Union. For example, the decentralised nature of the German mental health system means that their remains considerable differences in availability of preventative and promotional activities and stock of agencies across Federal States. This could be problematic in providing equitable standards of care to meet the need post Covid-19. The best way to address this is by utilising digital technologies to build safe platforms virtually to offer treatment and advice removing geographical inequities.
In my opinion there are several steps that countries in Europe can take to prepare for the potential mental health epidemics in their countries once Covid-19 has ended:
- Move Online – Countries need to make sure that all public, private, and charitable support agencies have safe and secure platforms online to provide treatment as well as preventative and promotional activities for mental health problems. This will not only help rectify geographical inequities in support, but reduce barriers faced by social distancing rules.
- Community Support – Where more traditional environments of mental health support are enabled, community facilities must be utilised to avoid inpatient mental health wards from becoming overwhelmed by the need for support.
- Track Mental Health – Through small to larger scale studies all European countries must start tracking the psychological health of their citizens to make sure they have an adequate amount of resources available to support people with mental health concerns quickly and efficiently after Covid-19. This will enable people to recover more quickly and engage back in social and economic activities.
The coronavirus will undoubtedly leave a negative imprint on citizens mental health across Europe, but with adequate planning, utilisation of digital technologies and increasing levels of community-based support the effects will be minimised allowing people to return to normal as quick as possible.