Much has been said and written about anxiety and mental health crisis in the wake of COVID-19. This is an important and welcome discussion: the effects of lockdowns, isolation, and the profound uncertainty about the future continue to take a toll on our communities and cannot be left unaddressed. I say this as a practicing psychiatrist, sitting parliamentarian, and former deputy minister of health.
This sense of anxiety and feelings of despair are especially acute in my native Greece, and not just because of the pandemic. When COVID-19 threw the world into chaos in early 2020, our nation was still healing from the financial crisis that hit our country exceptionally hard. The virus added to what was already a palpable collective sense of hopelessness after a decade of the most severe economic crisis any European nation has ever faced. Greece has been in a recovery process from high unemployment, bleak prospects for the future, and deeply wounded national pride when the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed in 2020.
A recent study of Greeks found that 29% of young adults reported depressive symptoms and 15% experienced feelings of anxiety. Across Europe, things aren’t much better. A recent UNICEF report found 19% of European teenage boys and 16% of teenage girls to be suffering from mental health disorders. Nine million adolescents in Europe were living with these disorders, it said, and anxiety and depression accounted for more than half of the cases. And while the challenge seems to be affecting younger Greeks, as well as Europeans, most acutely, the negative effects of anxiety impact all strata of society. American mental health reports and Surgeon General warnings, tell a similar story about the US, especially among teens and young adults.
Referring to the mental health emergency spreading across the EU, a colleague at the European Parliament described the situation as a “silent pandemic.” This is not an overstatement.
As both a psychiatrist and a politician, I have seen this issue from multiple vantage points. I know the toll anxiety can take, both on individuals and entire populations. That’s why I believe we as health professionals and public officials have a duty not to ignore it but rather to help address it.
On an individual level, too much anxiety can lead to a variety of serious problems that include social isolation, substance abuse, and even suicide. From a societal standpoint, allowing large levels of anxiety and despair to percolate can harm communities, hold back economies, and even create environments for dangerous political actors to gain support.
Of course, we’re not after a zero-anxiety world here. That is neither achievable nor desirable. Anxiety is a core human emotion and, as some neurologists remind us, an essential evolutionary adaptation. Indeed, it’s a survival skill that’s behind many of our species’ successes. Sensing a threat, our body responds with more blood being pumped to the brain, delivering extra oxygen and helping us stay sharp. Adrenaline adds speed, strength, and focus, and we can become a super-human version of ourselves, overcoming fear and difficulty in a way we couldn’t normally manage. But just as a glass of red wine can have positive health benefits while an overindulgence of alcohol most assuredly will not, the same principle applies here. We simply experience far too much anxiety far too often.
So, what should we do about it? What we’ve been doing thus far simply has not worked.
In Greece, I have been campaigning for Psychiatric Reform and the creation of a Network of Mental Health Services, the introduction of the Mental Health Services Map, similar to those drawn up based on other Member States, and overall creating the necessary infrastructure that supports early age diagnostic services. This infrastructure is necessary to take on anxiety and solve the mental-health crisis in Greece and across Europe, yet only a part of our overall approach, which has to be equally comprehensive and creative, if we are to tackle this challenge.
However, when it comes down to individuals, there are different interventions that may be helpful, from the pharmacological to the therapeutic. But in many cases, the most effective treatments are actually anything but high-tech—things we can practice ourselves at home. From taking a walk to practicing mindfulness, these types of “low-tech” interventions can often be more effective for individual patients than even the latest pill or medical technique. The key is to give people the tools they need to cope when anxiety arises. In some cases, it means providing motivation to overcome the discomfort by actually confronting a source of anxiety directly. In other cases, it means offering a way to relax.
As a psychiatrist, I know that my patients need medical help that depends on their individual circumstances. But I am also a firm believer in the power of providing patients with tools to cope. One U.S.-based therapist calls for simple solutions to help control anxiety and keep panic at bay when patients are alone and have to draw on their own resources and strength. She provides patients with ‘coping toolboxes’. These contain things like stuffed animals, calming oils, and sugar-free chewing gum. Each item has a specific sensory role to play in helping patients practice mindfulness and find comfort in moments of panic. With the gum, patients are directed to engage all five senses in the activity: paying attention to the color, texture, taste, smell, and how it feels in the mouth.
I’m not saying Europe’s anxiety crisis can be solved simply by taking a walk or chewing a stick of gum. But, for many patients, that really is what they need most—and don’t know it. The primary public policy challenge, then, is one of information and education.
We need to educate more Europeans about what anxiety is, provide at-home coping techniques, and ensure access to accurate information; this includes information about which therapy and medical options exist. While we should make clear that every solution need not to come in the form of a pill—that there are plenty of “low-tech” options available to each of us that may be just as effective—we should also encourage citizens to make use of every resource that fits their situation. This is critical to knocking down outdated taboos that have already prevented too many Europeans from seeking life-saving mental-health support.
I have seen the negative impacts of anxiety on society every day. This is a personal, and a collective challenge. Across Europe, it is a serious problem that demands the firmest attention of health professionals and politicians everywhere. While there isn’t any silver bullet to this challenge, there is plenty we can do. The key is to come at it in a variety of different ways—with more comprehensive policies at the governmental level, more innovative interventions at an individual level, and lots and lots of creative thinking.
Dr. Dimitrios Vartzopoulos is a sitting member of parliament and former deputy minister of health in Greece. He is also a practicing psychiatrist with a Ph.D. in Psychiatry & Psychotherapy