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HEALTH

How is Italy addressing its pandemic-induced mental health crisis?

After two years of being battered by the coronavirus pandemic, Italy is in the midst of a mental health crisis. How is the country facing up to the problem?

Italy's young people have been particularly hard hit by the effects of the pandemic.
Italy's young people have been particularly hard hit by the effects of the pandemic. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Italy was hit early and hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and – as in the rest of the world – people across the country have spent the last two years struggling to cope with the fallout.

There are now widespread reports of a mental health crisis in Italy affecting younger people in particular.

Recent studies show that an estimated one in four adolescents now has symptoms of clinical depression and one in five are showing signs of anxiety disorders.

In January 2021, the Bambino Gesù paediatric hospital in Rome reported a 30 percent increase in hospitalisations of children aged between 12 and 18 due to self harm after the first wave of Covid.

Italy’s government and regional authorities are now taking steps to grapple with the population’s declining mental health; but is enough being done?

The scale of the problem 

According to a recent study conducted by the mental health charity The Bridge Foundation (Fondazione The Bridge), the period between March 2020 and May 2021 saw a 68 percent reduction in adherence to treatments and a 63 percent increased risk of suicide among those already in the care of mental health services in Italy.

In the same period, 95 percent of the general population risked developing symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress, and there was an 85 percent increase in the consumption of non-prescription drugs such as psychotropics and anti-anxiety medications, the report says.

“These are alarming data that cannot be ignored by the government,” the foundation’s president Rosaria Iardino said in a press release published on Wednesday. “The issue of mental fragility must certainly be a priority on the government’s agenda.”

95 percent of Italy's general population is likely to have developed symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress over the course of the pandemic.

95 percent of Italy’s general population is likely to have developed symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress over the course of the pandemic. Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash.

A December 2021 survey conducted by the Soleterre Foundation and the Trauma Research Unit of the Catholic University of Milan based on a representative sample of 150 young people aged between 14 and 19 found that 69.3 percent of those interviewed felt the pandemic had become a part of their identity, and 64 percent said that it had made them a different person.

34.7 percent had trouble getting to sleep at night, and almost one in five (17.3 percent) said that they felt it would be better to die or had considered self-harm.

Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza acknowledged the problem over the weekend in an interview on the Rai talk show Mezz’ora in più (Half an Hour More), saying “the issue of mental health is crucial for the coming months.”

The current state of mental health services in Italy

Italy’s healthcare system is decentralised, operating on a regional rather than a national level and administered by local health authorities (Aziende Sanitarie Locali, or Asl) – meaning there are substantial variations in service provision depending on where in the country you’re based.

In 2020, Massimo Di Giannantonio, president of the Italian Society of Psychiatry, estimated that Italy’s local health authorities on average allocate just 3.2 percent to 3.3 percent of their budget to mental health, compared to upwards of 7 percent to 8.5 percent in places like Germany, France, and the UK.

Some Italian regions are taking their own initiatives to improve mental health outcomes.

People’s experience of mental health treatment in Italy will vary depending on where they’re based. Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

Some Italian regions, however, are further ahead of the game than others.

In August 2020, Campania introduced a regional law granting all residents the right to be assigned a psicologo di base or ‘primary care psychologist’, the mental health equivalent of a GP, through their Asl.

The Office of the Italian Prime Minister appealed against the law on the basis that it was unconstitutional (arguing that such a step can only be taken at national level), but in December 2021 Italy’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling confirming its legality – meaning that as of 2022, Campania’s residents should all have access to a state-funded psychologist.

Campania’s regional authorities have so far allocated €600,000 to the initiative over the next two years, and have announced plans to hire more psychologists to fill positions that the programme will create.

In a press release published on its website, the Campania region said the move is aimed at “intercepting and managing the behavioural and emotional problems deriving from the Covid 19 pandemic,” as well as “intercepting the psychological wellbeing needs that often remain unexpressed by the population”.

What’s Italy as a whole doing to combat the crisis? 

On Thursday, Italy announced plans to introduce a €10 million ‘psychologist bonus’ (bonus psicologo) to help people struggling with the effects of the pandemic to access mental health services as part of the new milleproroghe budget amendment bill, which is currently going through parliament.

If the proposal is passed, the funds will be made available via individual vouchers of up to €600 per person. As part of the plans, the bonus psicologo would be accompanied by an additional €10 million dedicated to strengthening existing health facilities and recruiting new mental health professionals.

The news of the bonus’s inclusion in the bill was met with praise by a number of public figures and politicians, with Democratic Party MP and former president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies Laura Boldrini saying it “meets the needs of many people, especially young people, who have experienced and are experiencing discomfort.”

Some, however, were less impressed, as news outlets noted that the €10 million budget proposed for the psychologist bonus would benefit just 16,000 people; less than 0.0003 percent of Italy’s population of 59.5 million.

"16,000 people? How do you participate in these hunger games? I want to laugh but I just cry #bonuspsicologo"
Tweet reads: “16,000 people? How do you participate in these hunger games? I want to laugh but I just cry #bonuspsicologo”

An early draft of Italy’s 2022 Budget Law had reportedly contained plans to allocate €50 million to a ‘mental health bonus’, which were later scrapped – prompting Rai News journalist Francesco Maesano to launch an online petition campaigning for its reinstatement that has so far garnered over 317,000 signatures.

In response to Thursday’s news, Maesano wrote: “We wanted more resources, certainly, and we’ll be back to ask for them. But the path has been set and it’s the right one.”

He added that the petition would remain up, with the intention of putting pressure on the government to ‘enhance and renew’ the bonus in the coming years.

Alternative measures

Like Campania, some regions have already taken matters into their own hands when it comes to providing post-pandemic mental health treatment.

The region of Lazio in January announced that it was allocating €2.5 million to implement its own psychologist bonus scheme – a portion of the €10.9 million that the region has reportedly ringfenced for mental health over the next three years.

Following the December 2021 Constitutional Court judgement, Lombardy is now also set to follow Campania’s lead in establishing a network of a primary care psychologists, with Lombardy’s Regional Council reportedly voting unanimously in favour of the motion in January 2022.

In a triumphant Facebook post published on the day of the vote, Lombardy regional councillor Niccolò carretta wrote “IT’S DONE!… Soon every Lombard will have a local, trustworthy, accessible, daily and above all free psychological support service at their disposal”.

The government, meanwhile, insists that the €10-million-euro psychologist bonus is just a first step.

‘We need to be careful about thinking that we’ll solve the problems with the bonus, because there is a need for more resources for psychological assistance through systemic action,” Speranza acknowledged in his interview on Mezz’ora in più.

“The bonus is an initial signal.”

If you’re dealing with thoughts of suicide, help is available:

  • The Befrienders Worldwide helpline welcomes calls from anywhere in the world, seven days a week.
  • For Italian speakers, Telefono Amico’s crisis hotline is open between 10am and midnight every day: call 0223272327 to speak to someone.

Member comments

  1. One of the best ways to deal with the mental-health crisis emerging from the plague is to ditch the mask mandates. Two years of not being able to read people’s expressions is causing great harm, especially to our children. Society now sees robots–faces that lack emotion. Google the mental and physical health importance of smiling AND perceiving smiles.

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DISCOVER ITALY

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.

In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people. 

The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.

The Adriatic, on the other hand, is a mass destination for foreign sunbathers, very popular especially among German and Russian tourists. The east coast has Italy’s widest and flattest sandy beaches, which make it an ideal spot for families – but also very crowded. 

READ ALSO: Private lidos take up more than 40 percent of Italian beaches: report

The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia. 

Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.

More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.

One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices. 

To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.

While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.

The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.

Tyrrhenian waters are cleaner too: in 2021, its shores won more bandiera blu (Blue flag) awards for high water quality standards than Adriatic beaches.

READ ALSO: Where to find even more of Italy’s best beaches

There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids. 

Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)

On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination. 

However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.

The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).

READ ALSO:

The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure. 

There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.

Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.

READ ALSO: Life in Italy in 2022: 10 things to add to your bucket list

Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location. 

A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.

The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.

READ ALSO: Ten percent of the world’s best beaches are in Italy

Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome. 

It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days. 

The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria. 

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