“I feel very privileged to be here, but I shouldn’t feel that way. I should be able to feel comfortable and it shouldn’t be a privilege. This should be a norm,” said Inês Mália Sarmento, a young mental health advocate from Portugal, in her speech to participants on the first day of Mental Health Week in Athens, Greece.
Mental Health Week, a joint initiative of WHO/Europe, through its Quality Care Office in Athens, and the Greek government, was a special series of 3-day events from 3 to 5 November, aimed at raising awareness of child and youth mental health in Greece and the WHO European Region.
Inês was one of more than 200 young advocates and service users who joined experts and decision-makers at the event to demand equal partnership in the development of mental health policies and services, and to create mental health systems that are inclusive and free from stigma and discrimination.
An open platform to reform mental health services
Held at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, Mental Health Week engaged a mental health service users and their families from many European countries, as well as Greek ministers, mental health experts and Greek Olympic athletes, during a technical workshop, a high-level meeting and numerous artistic and cultural activities.
Expectations for the event were high. “The series of events will give us the opportunity to discuss the current state of child and adolescent mental health and how we can ensure universal access to mental health services for young people in Europe,” said Zoe Rapti, deputy health minister of Greece.
Arts and cultural activities included yoga classes, a sailing class, a market where users of Greek mental health services sold food and handmade soap, and a concert featuring local musicians Monsieur Minimal and Andriana Babali and a disc jockey (DJ) from Poivre Fm. The concert was opened by Olympic champion Nikolaos Kaklamanakis and Paralympic champion Dimitris Karypidis.
The objectives of these events were to increase well-being and raise awareness of the stigma of mental health issues, which has a significant impact on many people in the Region.
“I hid from society for 21 years out of shame that I had a mentally ill person in my family. That had to change. No one, no family, should hide because of mental illness,” said Katerina Nomidou, a mental health advocate in Greece.
Leaders increasingly recognize the need to improve mental health systems, especially in the face of crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis, which “continue to ‘add a strain on people’s lives and their mental well-being,’ said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, who joined the live event on day two.
Young people have been particularly affected, with the global prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders nearly doubling since the start of the pandemic. There is an urgent need to improve the quality of child and adolescent mental health services in the Region, making them not only more accessible but better suited to the unique needs and preferences of this age group.
For this reason, added Dr. Kluge, Mental Health Week was timely and important. “In line with our Pan-European Mental Health Coalition and our European work programme, and building on the Mental Health Summit we organized with our Greek partners in July 2021, this event is part of a plan action that wants to create a world where young people can thrive,” he said. “For generations to come.”
Reinforcing youth participation and the importance of lived experience
The first day of events was devoted to continuing the work of the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition, including a dedicated session for young people to discuss what good quality mental health services would look like in their particular contexts.
Young people were quick to point out that they and those living with mental health issues are often left out of this conversation. While people with lived experience of mental health problems are increasingly involved in the development of mental health services and policies, participation is rarely sustained and often lacks compensation.
“Lived experiences must be at the center of all efforts. If it’s without us, then it’s not for us,” said Fatima Awil, policy and knowledge manager at Mental Health Europe, who specializes in youth engagement.
“We are our own experts. We do a lot. I think young people are doing so much for their mental health, we are more aware of that than any other generation, but we cannot do it alone,” said Anna Bailey, PhD student and member of the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition.
WHO/Europe takes their words to heart, aiming to scale up youth engagement in all areas of health system reform and create spaces for young people to have their voices heard, such as at the Youth4Health Forum in Tirana last October.
The Pan-European Mental Health Coalition is another such space, and WHO/Europe encourages young people to join. Many young people who have taken part in Mental Health Week have already done so, looking for a space where their voice will have a real impact.
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