Address by Her Majesty the Queen of the Belgians on the occasion of the session on mental health of the European Health Summit
Building back better for mental health
I am very pleased to be part of this conversation. I see this session as a great opportunity for us to help boost the visibility of mental health and wellbeing.
As you know, this is a subject I feel passionate about. I have addressed it many times, including in my role as an Advocate for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Good mental health is part of good health. The WHO stresses that health “is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Health and wellbeing are intertwined. As a consequence, “an individual’s subjective perspective on his or her physical, psychological and social state of being plays an important role”.
Mental health and wellbeing cover a very broad spectrum. This complexity can sometimes be confusing. It blurs perceptions and complicates adequate action. If we want people to care about mental health, we need to make clear what we are talking about. In short, mental health covers a continuum of conditions, and therefore of possible interventions. These start with prevention and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. But further along the continuum, counselling or specialized care may be required. Interventions must be tailored to the needs of the individual.
The COVID pandemic and the lockdown have had disastrous effects on mental health and mental wellbeing. The illness and sometimes death of relatives and friends, the loss of jobs and income, and a general uncertainty about the future are causing immense stress. Young people have been cut off from companionship and from their learning environment. Elderly people have experienced prolonged periods of loneliness and lasting feelings of abandonment. Domestic violence has increased dramatically.
However, the pandemic has also acted as a wake-up call. It has unlocked a vibrant conversation at both the national and global level, about the importance of mental health and wellbeing in our societies. Quite suddenly, media and commentators, decision-makers, and ordinary citizens have started taking a keen interest in the heavy psychosocial consequences of the pandemic, and of the lockdown, on mental wellbeing. Sometimes, this has literally become front-page news.
We cannot let this new awareness fade away. We need to seize the opportunity. The conversation must go on. We can draw on this “discovery”: how to speak frankly about mental issues.
Obviously, we need to keep devising appropriate responses and promoting adequate means to implement them. But we also need to generate the right kind of environment in our societies. An environment that mainstreams mental health. An environment that builds on precautionary and “do no harm” principles in terms of mental health. An environment of trust, which will encourage people to speak openly and freely. An environment in which the voices of people who have experienced mental health issues are heard.
We should not go back to what used to be “normal”, the heavy silence and the fear of stigmatization that stopped people from trying to access adequate counselling and care. We can all experience mental issues. Discussing mental health should become as natural as talking about any physical illness.
Access for all to adequate counselling and care is of the essence. We should be consequent and make sure that anyone who needs it can access it. Mental healthcare can take many forms. It can be offered in many different places. And it can be tailored to very specific needs. Families, helplines, social workers, schools, workplaces, private companies and of course medical institutions, all have a role to play. They can all provide attentive listening, they can all provide support, and they can all contribute to helping us take mental health seriously.
Let’s face it. Long before the pandemic, in “normal times”, we knew. We knew that too many people in our societies were facing depression and anxiety. We knew that burnouts were on the rise. We knew that suicide figures in many European countries are appalling. We live in a world that can at times be hard to manage. We should not be afraid of recognizing our vulnerabilities. Seeking the right support to tackle them will make us stronger.
The COVID pandemic has brought to light many stories of resilience and mutual support. Understanding better how this resilience came about and how these experiences can help us rebuild better, in mental health too, is an urgent challenge.