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By Holly Ellyatt, CNBC Assistant News Editor
Europe is approaching a crisis as the region’s debt crisis and austerity measures increase the rates of depression, suicide and psychological problems – just as governments cut healthcare spending by up to 50 percent, according to campaigners, policy makers and health organizations.
A growing number of global and European health bodies are warning that the introduction and intensification of austerity measures has led to a sharp rise in mental health problems with suicide rates, alcohol abuse and requests for anti-depressants increasing as people struggle with the psychological cost of living through a European-wide recession.
“No one should be surprised that factors such as unemployment, debt and relationship breakdowns can cause bouts of mental illness and may push people who are already vulnerable to take their own lives,” Richard Colwill, of the British mental health charity Sane, told CNBC.
“There does appear to be a connection between unemployment rates and suicide for example,” he said, referring to a recent study in the British Medical Journal that stated that more than 1,000 people in the U.K. may have killed themselves because of the impacts of the recession. “This research reflects other work showing similar rises in suicides across Europe.”
According to Josée Van Remoortel, advisor to the European organization Mental Health Europe (MHE), the financial crisis is affecting “all areas of life,” not just economies, and its impact on mental health is creating a “deep chasm in our society.”
“The credit crunch [has] had one unexpected consequence and one that reflects a deep chasm in our society – a sharp rise in mental health problems, largely caused by uncertainty and fear for the future,” he writes in a paper entitled “The Sane Approach.”
A recent survey of general practitioners (family doctors) in Britain by the Insight Research Group seems to support Van Remoortel’s view.
The data showed that out of 300 family doctors surveyed, the majority reported that austerity was damaging their patients’ health. Seventy six percent said their patients were unhealthier due to the economic climate and 77 percent said more patients were seeking treatment for anxiety.
The doctors surveyed relayed an increase in the incidence of alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression and requests for abortions due to economic reasons, anecdotal evidence borne out by statistics for anti-depressant requests in the U.K., which have risen 28 percent from 34 million prescriptions in 2007 to 43.4 million in 2011.
However, just as public health deteriorates, national government throughout Europe are deepening spending cuts and cutting mental healthcare by up to 50 percent.
The consequences of spending cuts could be long-lasting and pervasive throughout the continent, according to Van Remoortel from Mental Health Europe.
“The financial crisis will not last forever,” Van Remoortel said. “But rushed measures taken by national governments to patch their economies will surely have prolonged effects.”
He isn’t alone in calling for Europe’s governments to avoid cutting spending on mental health, particularly as one in four Europeans (215 million people) will experience a mental health disorder during the course of their lives according to MHE.
More worryingly, one study suggests that only 30 to 52 percent of Europeans with mental health problems make contact with a health professional, and as a result the real figure could be much higher.
John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy says Europe could be “sleep-walking into a catastrophe” as budget cuts hit healthcare services.
Speaking at a meeting at the European Economic and Social Committee in June, Dalli said that Europe was heading towards a “humanitarian crisis” and warned of the risks of "neglecting public health in times of austerity."
"The economic crisis should not turn into a health crisis. Financial hardship cannot jeopardize people's health and access to healthcare,” he said.
“Cutting back on healthcare delivery is invariably a false economy, triggering worsening outcomes in the longer term — for people’s health, for health systems, for society and the economy as a whole,” he said.
But with rising debt burdens and austerity programs, this is exactly what countries throughout Europe are doing. In Greece, a country in which a number of high profile “economic suicides'' have been recorded, funding for the mental health service has been cut by up to 50 percent.
In the U.K., 13.8 percent of the total 102 billion pound annual health budget goes on mental health provision. But after a decade of rising investment, the government is looking to cut 6.6 billion pounds from mental health care provision as part of 20 billion pounds of cuts from its national health service bill.
In a country where 6 million people suffer from mental health problems, a cut of 150 million pounds from the annual mental health budget could cause billions of pounds in adverse economic and human effects according to the National Mental Health Development Unit (NMHDU).
In a report by the organization, it estimated that the financial cost of mental illness to the wider economy amounted to 77 billion pounds a year in lost productivity and increased need for social security benefits.
At a time when mental health services are needed the most by society and economy, the government is jeopardizing the public’s welfare, Richard Colwill from the charity Sane told CNBC.
“Our concern is that people will be doubly penalized. At a time when we would reasonably expect there to be an increase in demand for mental health support, in the U.K. we are seeing cuts to services across the board,” Colwill said.
“With stretched services already seeing people fall through the cracks, our fear is that the fault lines can only widen.”