A Human Right’s Perspective on Poverty and Mental Health in the European Union

The United Nations estimates that there are 78 million people living at risk of poverty in the European Union. Poverty leads to social exclusion and marginalisation, individuals affected by poverty often experience barriers in accessing basic health and social services. People who live off of a low income are more likely to experience poor mental health, at the same time and poverty can cause or contributing to poor mental health. Poor mental health can lead to unemployment, isolation, social exclusion, low education and frequently homelessness for a number of people. Conversely, poverty can lead to the development of mental health problems. Certain groups, such as women, young people and children, migrants and the elderly, have a higher risk of suffering from mental health problems. For more information, you can find MHE background document on poverty and mental health here.

The event was hosted by Milan Zver MEP EPP, who gave the opening address. He highlighted the extent of poverty in the EU and the relationship between poverty and poor mental health. Afterwards, Nace Kovac,, President of Mental Health Europe, introduced the panel and welcomed the crowd. Several MEP and MEP Assistants attended the event, as well as, several doctors and representatives from civil society.

The first speaker was Elizabeth Mottershaw, an Associate at Global Associates and Partnersshe presented presented "Using human rights to tackle poverty." She has been conducting research on how human rights have been used as a tool to combat social exclusion and poverty. Ms. Motershaw spoke of how human rights encompass both fundamental values and specific rights; reframes the poverty debate, and can mobilise communities and build alliances. Examples from the US, UK, Canada, France, and elsewhere were incorporated into her presentation. A summary of her research can be found here

The next panellist was Preben Brandt a psychiatrist and directory of "Project UDENFOR". gave a presentation titles "Inequality in Mental Health:reality? A challenge for ensuring welfare to all citizens." Dr.Brandt emphasised that people living in poverty and socially excluded groups are more likely to have mental illnesses and suffer for a longer period of time than those who are not identified as poor. At the same time marginalised individuals do not use psychiatric and other health services. Due to the stigma attached with mental illness, these individuals are also not well received in social services. New services where health professionals make psychiatric services available in homeless shelters and on the streets were presented.

The CEO of Mental Health Ireland Brian Howard gave the third presentation titled "Poverty, Human Rights and Mental Health: the Irish Experience." Mr. Howard explained the relationship between the three themes in Ireland. New legislation was enacted due to obligations in international Human Rights Conventions, as the address underlying determinants of mental health such as good housing conditions, employment rights, education, and a health environment. His presentation focused on how the human rights framework was used as a catalyst for change in Ireland. Mr. Howard also spoke of the effects of the economic crisis n mental health. The situation is especially severe in Ireland, as the economy was exceptionally strong until 2008.

The final pannelist was Mr. Jan Jarab, a member of cabinet for Vladimir Spidla, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities. Mr. Jarab gave a presentation on the "Expert Group Report on the Transition from Institutional to Community-based Care" a report released by the European Commission in 2009. The Report addresses the institutionalization in Europe and argues for t a community-based approach to achieve an inclusive society. People of all ages and situations live in care homes , such as the elderly, children and people with disabilities. Several challenges to de-institutionalisation are identified in the report. The Commission produced a set of Common Basic Principles drawn from best practice examples and an evaluation of key challenges such as the failure to close institutions and to create appropriate community-based services.

Recommendations from Mental Health Europe

Mental Health Europe released three key recommendation in their Position Paper

1. Guarantee the right to social inclusion of people with mental health problems by

- Ensuring adequate social protection systems as a basic citizen’s right to protect the most vulnerable

groups in society (women, young people and children, migrants, older people) from falling into poverty, social exclusion and homelessness.

- Implementing the EU Active Inclusion Strategy in all EU member states to effectively achieve its goals.

- Launching anti-stigma campaigns and targeted training and support schemes.

- Strengthening the Open Method of Coordination to foster cooperation of the EU member states in the fields of social inclusion and social protection.

- Further developing a monitoring system to measure social exclusion and poverty is an important step to achieve the development of targeted policy measures.

2. Ensuring access to good mental health for everybody by

- Guaranteeing that policies aimed at the reduction of inequalities in health are part of a comprehensive plan that includes social equality policies in all areas relevant for everybody, equality of information, education, and work.

- Implementing the European Pact for Mental Health and Well Being by creating measures to fight exclusion of people living in poverty from mental health services as well as to fight stigma attached to mental health.

- Making the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities a reality by supporting EU Member States in the ratification and the implementation of the Convention and its optional Protocol and establishing guidelines in the field of access to health for people with mental health problems.

- Supporting the role that the Fundamental Rights Agency could play in studies on access to health care and on health inequalities.

3. Making rights for all a reality by

- Implementing the rights contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights including the right to health care (Article 35) at EU and national levels.

- Adopting a broad EU directive on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

- Ensuring the right to civil and political participation for people experiencing mental health problems or poverty.

- Involving and empowering people with mental health problems is of particular importance as they have the expertise and can help policy makers to identify key challenges and good practices.

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Last modified on December 17 2009.