Over the past three years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health into the public eye, with millions of people suffering from major depression and anxiety disorders. Now, with the pandemic under control in the WHO European Region, WHO/Europe is urging governments to keep mental health high on the health and political agendas in the recovery phase.
At a meeting hosted by WHO/Europe and the Danish Health Authority in Copenhagen on 19 September, advocates and experts from the Nordic and Baltic regions gathered to share ideas and experiences on how to maintain and improve mental health services for the nearly 35 million people who live in this subregion. This was the first meeting of its kind between representatives from this group of countries.
“COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our collective well-being, not only increasing mental distress and substance use, but also resulting in an additional 53 million cases of major depressive disorder globally and an additional 76 million cases of anxiety disorders,” he said. Dr. Hans Henry B. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, at the opening of the meeting.
“These and other effects have pushed mental health systems to their limits, while also revealing the extent of underserved, underfunded, and understaffed, even before the pandemic.”
Even before the pandemic, WHO/Europe had put mental health at the center of its agenda by making it one of the four main areas of its European Program of Action (EPW), “United Action for Better Health”.
Speaking at the meeting, Dr Soren Prostrom, Director-General of the Danish Health Authority, commended this vision and commitment, highlighting the importance of the EPW flagship and the European Framework for Action on Mental Health, adopted by member states in the region in 2021.
“I think we’re definitely making progress on that agenda in our region, also by having sub-regional meetings like this one today,” said Dr. Prostrom. “[Mental health] It has definitely been a top priority for us in Denmark for many years. We’ve had many successes, but also many challenges in our general health, and the biggest challenge by far has been mental health.”
Sharing best mental health practices
During the all-day meeting, participants were able to present the work that has been done in their countries to strengthen mental health services.
For example, Denmark has set its own 10-year Mental Health Action Plan, which was unveiled in January 2022. If approved by the Danish Parliament, the plan would be one of the most ambitious of its kind, promoting mental health services across the health system spectrum – From hospital and primary care to integrated mental health services in schools and professional settings.
Others have discussed the importance of leveraging digital tools when providing mental health services, for example, through online therapy, prevention, and mental health promotion.
The Nordic and Baltic cooperation is an important example for others in the WHO European Region wishing to transform their mental health systems and provide better care for people with mental health conditions.
This is also in the spirit of the Pan-European Mental Health Alliance, launched nearly a year ago by WHO/Europe, which seeks to bring governments and organizations together to share ideas on how to advance the mental health agenda in European and Central Asian communities.
The coalition held its first meeting in May 2022, where experts began discussing key areas of action, from transforming mental health services to strengthening leadership. The Alliance is expected to hold its second meeting in Ankara, Turkey, in November 2022 to advance this agenda.
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