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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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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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