Written by Luisa Antunes with Laia Delgado Callico
Enforced collective social isolation during the coronavirus crisis has led to unprecedented societal changes. Each of us has dealt with stress factors resulting from social distancing, reduced interpersonal connections, and work and study challenges. At the same time, we have retained a sense of connectivity and belonging through the use of technology. This new unique set of circumstances has yielded unprecedented impacts on our psychological makeup and our interaction with the collective. What psychosocial and mental health factors affected us during the pandemic? Which stressors contributed to the development of mental health issues? Which protective factors can strengthen resilience and mental health?
To answer these questions and to discuss policy options for strengthening the EU’s common response to the coronavirus outbreak, the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) organised an online ‘STOA Meets Experts’ event ‘Coping with the pandemic: Psychosocial consequences of the corona crisis‘, which took place on 25 January 2022.
European Parliament Vice-President and STOA Chair Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece) opened the event stressing STOA’s commitment to science as a fundamental means for ensuring European citizens’ wellbeing. She mentioned that the European Parliament approved a resolution in July 2020, recognising mental health as a fundamental human right and calling for a 2021‑2027 EU action plan on mental health.
Presentation of the STOA study ‘How are we coping with the pandemic? Mental health and resilience amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the EU’
Dr Angela Kunzler, research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (Germany), presented the first EU-exclusive review study addressing the mental health impact of the pandemic and the impact of containment measures and policies centred on health, work and financial support. The study, commissioned by STOA, compared data before and during the pandemic from observational studies performed across population groups and Member States.
A consistent increase was observed in anxiety, depression and general distress during the first wave of the pandemic, followed by adaptation in a further early phase. This adaptation can be interpreted as resilience, i.e. the maintenance or fast recovery of mental health during or after exposure to a stressful event. The individuals most affected were women, people of lower socioeconomic background and those affected with feelings of loneliness and fear of Covid‑19. Protective factors identified included the existence of social support systems, financial stability and the exercise of physical/recreational activities. No conclusions could be drawn regarding the impact of containment measures or of specific support policies in different Member States.
Four possible policy options were identified:
(i) to monitor mental health in the general EU population over a period of at least five years;
(ii) to raise public and policy-maker awareness;
(iii) to conduct an EU-wide study of the impact of Covid‑19 on mental health services, and
(iv) to initiate a mental health preparedness and response strategy focused on psychosocial and mental support.
Dr Eleni Andreouli, director of research at the School of Psychology & Counselling at The Open University (United Kingdom), focused on what helps us as a society to better cope with the pandemic, highlighting social solidarity and opportunities for collective resilience.
A recent study showed how the polarisation of opinions increased during the pandemic, leading to a decline in trust in national governments and in the EU. The pandemic exacerbated already-existing tensions in the social contract. It increased social and health inequalities, altered social interactions and work-life balance, and brought new norms in our identities as citizens in the public space.
However, the shared traumatic experience can also be a positive opportunity for the design of a new social contract built around solidarity and care. This will depend on the ability for authority figures, such as political and scientific, to show leadership in addressing social and health inequalities and in harnessing concrete policies and practices centred on inclusion and common identity.
Member of the European Parliament, Peter Liese (EPP, Germany) focused on the impact of the pandemic – school closures – on the mental health of children. ‘Long-Covid’ poses challenges to our mental health and the neurological effects of the virus should not be understated. In this regard, daylight and physical activity were fundamental tools to improve our mental health during Covid‑19. In addition, targeted support should be provided to people suffering from severe mental health issues.
Vice-President Kaili reminded participants of the importance of stress resilience. More research is needed on mental health protective factors and on the long-term effects of Covid‑19. An EU-wide research study should be developed to compare the response of national healthcare systems to the mental health impact of the pandemic. The results could then be used to develop an EU emergency preparedness plan to counteract the negative mental health consequences of pandemics in general.