Over the past 3 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health under the public eye, with millions of people suffering from major depressive and anxiety disorders. Now, as the pandemic comes under control in the WHO European Region, WHO/Europe is urging governments to keep mental health at the top of the health and political agendas in the recovery phase.
Gathered 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 met to share ideas and experiences on how to maintain and improve mental health services for the nearly 35 million people living in this sub-region. This was the first meeting of its kind among representatives from this group of countries.
“COVID-19 had a profound impact on our collective well-being, not only increasing mental distress and drug use, but also leading to an additional 53 million cases of major depressive disorder globally and an additional 76 million cases of anxiety disorders,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, at the opening of the meeting.
“These and other impacts have pushed mental health systems to their limits, while also revealing how under-served, underfunded and understaffed they were, even before the pandemic.”
Even before the pandemic, WHO/Europe had placed mental health at the heart of its agenda by making it 1 of the 4 flagship areas of its European Programme of Work (EPW), ‘United Action for Better Health’.
Speaking at the meeting, Dr Søren Brostrøm, Director-General of the Danish Health Authority, praised this vision and commitment, highlighting the importance of the EPW flagship and the European Framework for Action on Mental Health, adopted by the Region’s Member States in 2021.
“I think we are certainly making progress on this agenda in our Region, also by holding sub-regional meetings such as this one today,” Dr Brostrøm said. “[Mental health] has certainly been a very high priority for us in Denmark for many years. We have many successes, but also many challenges in our public health, and by far the greatest challenge has been in mental health.”
Sharing mental health best practices
During the day-long meeting, participants were able to present work being done in their respective countries to strengthen mental health services.
For instance, Denmark outlined its 10-year mental health action plan, revealed 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 discussed the importance of leveraging digital tools when providing mental health services, for example, through online treatment, prevention and mental health promotion.
The cooperation between the Nordic and Baltic regions is an important example for others in the WHO European Region wishing to transform their mental health systems and provide better care to people living with mental health conditions.
This is also in the spirit of the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition, launched by WHO/Europe nearly a year ago, which seeks to bring together governments and organizations to exchange ideas on how to advance the mental health agenda in European and central Asian societies.
The Coalition held its first meeting in May 2022, where experts began discussing key areas of work, ranging from transforming mental health services to strengthening leadership. The Coalition is expected to hold its second meeting in Ankara, Türkiye, in November 2022 to move this agenda forward.