Mental health has been a priority for WHO since 1948. But with the COVID-19 pandemic a renewed focus is especially important. Apart from the fear and uncertainty regarding infection itself, measures brought in to contain the spread of the virus, such as quarantine and lockdown, have been psychologically challenging for many people and communities. These compound social isolation for many and add to existing anxieties and stresses. Overall the uncertainty of the future is increasing mental health problems among people. The situation is even more challenging for frontline health-care workers and people living with existing health conditions.
The burden of mental ill-health in Europe
In the WHO European region, over 110 million people are living with some kind of mental health condition, accounting for over 10% of the population. As it is, 140,000 people die per year in the region due to suicide.
Many countries in the European region have requested help for reform and development of mental health systems from the WHO.
The new flagship initiative will facilitate a more concerted effort to secure better mental health for all, both through intensified country support and inter-country initiatives at regional and global levels. By marking mental health as a fundamental element of the WHO European Programme of Work, existing opportunities and evidence-based approaches for mental health promotion, protection and care will be seized, scaled up and sustained.
People with mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities have long been stigmatized. One of the core components of the WHO mental health flagship will therefore involve challenging stigma and discrimination by improving mental health awareness and literacy among not only the public but also service providers and decision-makers.
Another key pillar of the new initiative will be enhancing access to person-centred, rights-based mental health care in communities. This will expedite progress towards universal health coverage for people with mental health conditions and make the case for a parity of esteem between mental and physical health.
The pandemic has shone a light on the fragility of existing institution-based systems and the need for community-based support and care (delivered through digital means where necessary or applicable). The mental health flagship will encourage efforts and investments to relocate care away from institutions and towards community services, including through the integration of mental health into primary health care and other priority programmes such as adolescent health and noncommunicable diseases.
Since mental health is an integral element of individual and collective well-being, protecting and promoting it during times of adversity and uncertainty is especially important, as is ensuring the availability and continuity of quality care for those living with mental health conditions. Moving forward the flagship will instigate long-overdue reforms to mental health services and deconstruct social stigma around mental ill health.
What will the flagship do?
The new flagship for mental health will,
- improve mental health literacy and awareness among the public, service providers and decision makers to challenge stigma and discrimination,
- enhance access to person-centred, rights-based mental health care in communities,
- encourage efforts and investments to relocate care away from institutions and towards community services, including through the integration of mental health into primary health care and other priority programmes such as adolescent health and noncommunicable diseases,
- ensure the availability and continuity of quality care for those living with mental health conditions, even during times of adversity and uncertainty, and
- the flagship will instigate long-overdue reforms to mental health services and deconstruct social stigma around mental ill health.
There are associations of alcohol use and alcohol use disorders (AUD) with almost every mental disorder, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. The pandemic has further exacerbated alcohol problems in society. In May, for instance, a WHO/Europe report showed that more adolescents in the region report mental health concerns.
But promoting mental health and well-being through alcohol prevention is effective, as figures from a landmark study in Sweden show: young people who live alcohol-free feel best. Since 2000, the proportion of youth who consume alcohol in grade 9 has decreased substantially from 81 to 42%. A new C.A.N. study shows clear improvements for the social and mental well-being of the group of young people who live free from alcohol. The group was previously in the minority and felt worse in various ways, but now they feel best.