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Editor's choiceEurope’s most stressed-out country is revolutionizing mental healthcare

Europe’s most stressed-out country is revolutionizing mental healthcare

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In a nation known for its picturesque landscapes and a relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle, a hidden reality is finally being acknowledged. Greece, despite its reputation for tranquillity, has been grappling with a mental health challenge greater than any other in Europe. It’s a crisis fuelled by the lingering effects of the financial crisis, which hit Greece notoriously hard, as well as collective income loss, GDP decline, and funding cuts. In the face of such adversity, Greece is at last beginning to take significant strides towards enhancing its mental health services.

In a significant move towards improving mental health services, the Greek government has appointed a minister for mental health—a welcome signal of their commitment to addressing this pressing issue. This represents a shift towards the Swedish and German approach of recognizing the importance of mental health in a society’s well-being.

Greece, much like its Mediterranean neighbour Italy, is confronting a paradox: a seemingly serene lifestyle concealing soaring stress levels. The Gallup 2019 Global Emotions poll dropped a startling revelation that 59% of Greeks had experienced stress in the preceding 24 hours, the highest rate across all the nations surveyed. Studies done post-Covid-19 seem to have further exacerbated the crisis.

The survey also identified neighbouring countries such as Italy, Albania, Cyprus, and Portugal as among the most stressed in Europe. In stark contrast, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Denmark reported significantly lower levels of stress. Taking lessons from other nations, and based on the principles of open, evidence-based, community-focused and data-led care, the Greek 5-year plan was launched through law no. 5015/2023 in February.

The Greek solution has already started to work. Greece has transitioned its mental healthcare system towards a community-based primary care approach, in opposition to the failed and abused bio-medical model. This shift has brought significant improvements in the delivery of mental health care services for children and adolescents and works on an understanding that mental health can in many cases be best treated using the power of community and socialisation, as well as an understanding that support can be most accessible when integrated into schools, sports and other community activities. However, despite these positive changes, various challenges persist, creating obstacles for children and families seeking mental health care.

Resource distribution in Greece’s mental healthcare system is far from equal, resulting in significant disparities in service availability and care quality across regions and socioeconomic groupings. The public sector, in particular, grapples with a shortage of child and adolescent doctors and other certified mental health professionals. This scarcity poses significant challenges for training programs seeking to bridge these gaps. Furthermore, an absence of official epidemiological data means the needs of various actors within the mental health services remain obscured.

Leaning further into the successes of the community-based approach, the CAMHI initiative needs accurate data to understand the mental health needs of children, adolescents, their families, caregivers, educators, and professionals working with them. Participants also received the Synthesis Report, recently released for the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Initiative (CAMHI), which offers a comprehensive overview for Greek mental health and sets out clear goals for child mental health. For instance, CAMHI aims for training programmes to address personnel shortages, collaborative networks, and online resources so that children and adults can have the information they need to be vigilant about their own mental health.

When adults and young people become conscious not just of their physical but also of their mental health needs, there are opportunities for more efficient preventative strategies which can be highly effective and reduce the strain on public health services. For instance, sports and time in the sun are known to release endorphins which chemically relieve stress, while other aids like stress balls and chewing sugar-free gum can be the key to self-care practices like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and meditation, which can reduce anxiety and improve focus through repeated actions like chewing and squeezing.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment of this project took place at the 2023 SNF Nostos Conference in June. This gathering brought together a diverse array of experts, including researchers, practitioners, and activists, to discuss the progress of the CAMHI, the 5-year public-private partnership to radically improve mental health services in Greece. The conference covered a wide range of topics, from the impact of loneliness on mental health to the role of arts, AI, and technology in addressing mental health challenges.

Notable speakers at the conference included influential figures like Glenn Close, Goldie Hawn, David Hogg, Michael Kimmelman, Harold S. Koplewicz, and Sander Markx. But by far the most prominent participant was none other than former U.S. President Barack Obama, whose presence emphasized the global importance of addressing mental health issues and investing in future generations.

As Greece continues its journey towards improved mental health and well-being, it serves as an example to the world of what can be achieved when a nation collectively decides to prioritize the well-being of its people and proves that good policy can improve mental health in even the most extreme of crises.

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