Economic recession, unemployment and unmanageable debts impact hugely on mental health. This week I hosted a meeting of the European Parliament’s Health Working Group focusing on the effect the economic crisis is having on mental health. Speakers included psychologists, patient groups and the World Health Organisation, and the evidence they presented was compelling. During economic crises depression, anxiety and suicide rates increase. On average, every 1% rise in unemployment correlates to a 0.8% rise in suicides, and in Greece the number of suicides increased by 40% in 2011. The outlook for mental health across our continent is not looking good.
It’s not just bad news however; our session went on to look at possible solutions for avoiding a European mental health crisis. Past experience shows that countries with good social protections are able to mitigate the negative effects of economic woes. For example, despite suffering a severe banking crisis and a rapid rise in unemployment in the 1990s, during this period Sweden’s suicide rates continued to fall steadily. Compare this with Spain, where multiple banking crises in the 70s and 80s and subsequent jumps in unemployment rates directly correlated to changes in suicide rates. Of course there are many differences between Sweden and Spain, but a key difference is the amount of social protection people are given.
So what kind of protection are we talking about? An essential component is active labour market programmes that provide support and guidance for people while they’re out of work, help people stay in work or find jobs, train young people and promote employment for people with disabilities. The World Health Organisation finds that an extra £60 per person spent on such programmes halves the rise in suicide rates during times of high unemployment. Unfortunately the current Tory-Liberal government is doing just the opposite, closing Remploy factories which provide work for disabled people, and closing down Connexions centres which provide careers advice to young people.
To me this is backwards logic. A 2007 report showed that 40% of incapacity benefit is due to mental illness. 10 million working days are lost due to stress, depression and anxiety. In the UK and across much of the EU governments are choosing the simple option of short term economic gains, without thinking of the huge long term costs to individuals, society, healthcare and the economy. That’s why I’ve co-signed a letter to all EU heads of governments stressing the need for a commitment to invest in health and social protection at the European Council meeting next week.
We need a long-term strategy. What’s the point in having social protections during the good times but then taking away the safety net during the tough times? Our happiness and health cannot be solely reliant on the will of the markets, or the performance of the banks. If we give people the support they need now to get back on their feet, then we’ll have a stronger, more sustainable economy for the future. But if we abandon people, we’ll have a long-term mental health crisis on our hands.