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Androulla Vassiliou

Commissioner for Health

"Together for Mental Health and Well-being"

High-level conference on Mental Health
Brussels, 13 June 2008

Royal Highness,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today is an important day for mental health, for public health policy, and for the EU's approach to citizens' concerns more generally. Let me welcome you to today's High level conference "Together for Mental Health and Well-being". I am grateful for the support of my colleague Commissioner Spidla, the Slovenian Presidency and the World Health Organization in organising this important event.

I am also honoured that so many eminent leaders from European institutions, Member States, international organisations, personalities and representatives from organisations in the fields of health, education, employment and social affairs accepted my invitation.

In particular, I thank Her Royal Highness Princess Esmeralda of Belgium for accepting to be honorary guest and to speak at this conference. Her Royal Highness supports concrete help for children with mental disorders, and presented this at yesterday's preconference. Her presence today underlines her strong sensitivity to issues around mental health.

I am also particularly honoured by Prime Minister Bondevik's availability to speak to us about his own experience of depression during his term in office, and about the lessons which he has drawn from this. We will be able to learn a lot from him.

This high interest in today's conference shows: mental health and well-being is now recognised as an important public health issue. And beyond that, it has key societal and economic dimensions which we have to address seriously, in a joint effort, in Member States, through international organisations and in the European Union.

We all know that across the EU the number of diagnosed mental disorders is steadily increasing. Looking into six countries, a European study found mental disorders present in 15% of women and 8% of men in adult age during a year. According to WHO, mental disorders already represent the biggest share of disorders in several Member States.

Suicide is another challenge: Every nine minutes, a European commits suicide - 58,000 people die every year as a consequence, three quarters of them being men. Suicide is the second major cause of death in young people, after accidents. Eight of the fifteen countries worldwide with the highest male suicide rates are EU-Member States.

In response, mental health and well-being is now high on the health policy agendas in Member States and beyond. But it also needs a prominent place in EU health policy. I know that there have been discussions: this is an important issue, but is there a real EU angle? Can we add value to what countries do on the one hand, and what WHO on the other does?

This conference will show where the added value lies. We as the European Union put citizens at the centre of our work. The Treaty sets out very clearly what this means for health: helping to attain a high level of health protection, by fighting health scourges, by promoting prevention and education, and also by promoting the cooperation of Member States. It would be inconceivable if we took forward our ambitious new health strategy, without addressing what is one of today's major health challenges. Our contribution therefore is twofold: to use public health policy to help improve information and data comparability on mental health and to identify and exchange good practice in health promotion and disease prevention.

But our task goes beyond merely health policy. Mental health and well-being is the foundation of today's knowledge society and global economy. It is a prerequisite for Europe's sustainable success, and it can become a competitive advantage for European economies and societies.

However, much needs to be done: an alarming number of mental health problems in children and young people, steadily increasing rates of work absenteeism and work incapacity because of mental disorders, and an increase of age-related mental and neuro-degenerative disorders as our societies age show: we need to improve the way how our schools operate, our workplaces are organised, and how our communities live together. Social determinants are important, together with biology and genetics.

These challenges are increasingly recognised, in Member States who have the main responsibility for action in this field, and among our partners working in education, those representing employers and employees, the social sector and civil society more generally.

This conference will look at youth and education, the workplace, and at issues around older people in more detail. And it will show that taking into account mental health considerations improves health, together with learning performance, productivity and social cohesion. Today, we will see good practice developing about

  • how we can promote education and health in young age and intervene early when necessary, to avoid mental health concerns later in life,
  • how investing in workplace health can avoid stress at work, long term sick leave and major costs to companies, thereby boosting productivity,
  • how older people can be supported to live healthy, active lives.

And I am happy to report that we are already working across EU policies on these issues, which I am taking forward – among others into areas such as employment and social policy, youth and education, sustainable development, and research – just to name a few areas.

But we need to take together one step further: to break the taboo which still surrounds mental illness, and empowering people with mental health problems. This requires taking a strong commitment to addressing stigma and discrimination. We need to tackle the challenge of higher rates of mental health problems in socially disadvantaged population groups, and at the same time the risk of social marginalisation of people experiencing mental health problems, for instance through their difficulties in getting access to employment. Again, this is an area where the EU has important value to add, and a key responsibility, as our discussions will show.

This brings me to the European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being. It has two purposes: to reiterate our commitment to action, both across the public sector and with stakeholders, and to help us focus on delivery. Because implementation remains a challenge. And I am convinced that this is another area with real EU added value. For example, as we are determined to reduce suicide rates or to improve the social inclusion of people with mental disorders, we are not always sure about the measures to take. Similarly, the evidence for action which strengthens learning and work is growing as we will hear, but not yet as solid as it could be. If we bring together the knowledge and experience from across the EU, this will improve our individual success and that of us as a whole. The consensus papers, which have been prepared to support this conference, are a first step in this direction of pooling knowledge and developing mutually endorsed recommendations, and I thank the many from a wide range of backgrounds who have worked together to prepare them, because they share our view.

The European Pact will help to raise the visibility of mental health across sectors, and it would give directions to take this work forward in the future. The Pact - which we will together establish this afternoon – will of course not be a legal instrument. But it should carry with it the political will and weight of all those involved now and in future to work together on the key challenges.

Working together will mean to first bring together information about our situations and activities. At the same time, we will engage into an exchange on what approaches work best, what their success factor are, and what general recommendations we can draw from them. This can lead to the establishment of further commitments for action. The Pact will also focus on enhancing cooperation between actors, who work on the same questions, but from different angles.

The Pact will focus on the five priority themes, which are also the themes of sessions during today's conference:

- Prevention of Depression and Suicide;

- Mental Health in Youth and Education;

- Mental Health in Workplace Settings;

- Mental Health in Older People;

  • Combating stigma and social exclusion.

Today, my feeling is that of an exciting new departure of a new common project. I am confident that our joint endeavour will contribute to better health and well-being in the EU, and that it can, at the same time, support our broader educational, economic and social policy objectives. Thank you for joining me – us – in this new quest in an area which is so close to our citizens' hearts, and which will show tangibly how well European integration and EU policies can support and address very real concerns shared by people across Europe.

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