Health ministers and NGO representatives from the 52 member states in the World Health Organization’s European Region have put their heads together in Helsinki this week to discuss the issue of mental health.
Much mental illness can be worked through with therapy
The conference, which is the first of its kind organized by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, is expected to result in a declaration and action plan on mental health issues on the continent. And with psychological problems affecting one in four Europeans at some point in their lives, it is not a moment too soon.
It has become Europe’s "unseen killer," contributing to 58,000 suicides annually. In fact, more Europeans take their own lives each year than have them claimed in traffic accidents or murders.
"What we see unfortunately in comparison to cardiovascular disease where we have a very positive development in the larger part of Europe is an increase in the disease burden of mental illness," Gudjon Magnussohn, director of the European Ministerial Conference on Mental Health said.
Magnussohn believes there are a number of factors which feed into the rise, including changing family structures, demanding working environments, the threat of unemployment and insecurity at work and an increase in societal stress.
Of the ten countries with the highest rate of suicide in the world, nine are in the European Region, and half of those people suffering from depression do not receive treatment. Magnussohn believes taboos are one major reason for that.
"Social exclusion is far too much of a problem. It is still a stigma and taboo even though we see progress in many countries which have been dealing with this. There were some successful campaigns against stigma and discrimination in countries like Scotland and Greece, where there was clearly a change in public attitudes to mentally ill patients, but we need to be doing much much more," Magnussohn added.
Changing the landscape
The Mental Health Action Plan for Europe to be endorsed by the WHO’s European Region member states calls for political commitment to change mental health services. Many countries don't offer the necessary treatment for people suffering from such illnesses as depression, and for those who do receive help, the environment leaves something to be desired.
"There's a need to refocus mental health services, to move from large asylums, large hospitals to more community based care. Europe holds the world record in hospitalization of mentally ill patients instead of increasing the opportunity and possibilities to care for patients in the community," Magnussohn said.