Mental health is wealth – so why do Europe’s youth have neither?

The world is on fire. A global pandemic is raging. The economy is in slow mo. There are no jobs. Young people can’t afford to move out of their parents’ house or live on their own. Reading the news is depressing. It’s no wonder that youth mental health problems have doubled in just one year. This year’s #EuropeanMentalHealthWeek three of our Greens/EFA interns – Marco, Carolina and Timothy, young people from all over the EU – tell us how they have been affected by unemployment, the housing crisis and climate change, and the impact on their own mental health.

Alongside COVID-19, another invisible pandemic has swept the globe since the beginning of 2020. We are talking about the crisis in youth mental health. Young people are 30% to 80% more likely to experience depression or anxiety since the pandemic started, says a report by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

The causes of mental health issues amongst young people are varied. And, of course, each young person has their own personal burdens. However, it is clear that our generation is confronted with some huge common problems. We’re taking a closer look at three issues facing young people in Europe – the climate crisis, unemployment and housing – and asking: what is it like to face these problems as a young person in the EU? And how can we protect our mental health?

While you read, why not listen to our mental health playlist? Feel free to dance a little with us over our shared problems!

Housing struggles: how do they affect youth mental health?

Carolina photo

Carolina from Madrid, Spain

Carolina is 23 years old. We had a chat with her and she told us how housing struggles affect our generation’s mental health.

How is the housing crisis in Europe impacting young people?

Finding a house is much more difficult than it was in the past – particularly for young people. While our parents or grandparents already had a job and a house at our age, we barely manage to pay rent each month.

I’ve been lucky enough to live in four countries: Spain, France, Belgium and the UK. In all of them, I’ve seen how my friends suffered the stress and uncertainty of not knowing where they would live next month. If they would find something at an affordable price or if they would have to pick up their things and go home again.

High prices and a rapidly changing housing market make it a real struggle to find anywhere cheap to live. Often there are so many requirements before you can sign a contract. You have to secure an employment contract, find a guarantor, save for a deposit. It’s a barrier many young people simply won’t be able to cross. In Lyon, I lived in private accommodation for students. Even so, they asked me for my parents’ salary over the last two years and for two guarantors. This was despite being a student with an Erasmus grant.

Why is finding housing in European cities so difficult?

In Spain, I’ve also seen the different realities of living in big cities such as Barcelona and Madrid. The average monthly rent in these two cities is 82% more expensive than in the rest of the country. My friends coming to Madrid from other cities hardly managed to find a room at an affordable price. At the same time they had to pay for their education.

On average, young people make up 20-30% of the total number of homeless people in the majority of European countries. These numbers have increased in the last years and the situation has only become worse during the pandemic.

Even the luckiest, who can afford to pay rent, have to put more than 50% of their wages towards housing. Which makes it difficult to make ends meet. Unpaid internships or low wages added to the high cost of rent in most European countries makes it a vicious circle.

Young people are trapped. We’re unable to sign a rental contract by ourselves. Most of us are unable to afford rent and unable to save for our own home.

What about sharing a flat? Is this the future of housing for young people?

Sharing a flat with five other people has become the normal thing for people in their mid-20s or 30s. In cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels, the average monthly rent for a flat is around 1000€. All the while, the average wage for young people in Spain or Italy is 1200€. It’s not difficult to do the maths. The only way to become independent is to share a flat.

People talk about sharing a flat as an ‘enriching experience’ or ‘living in a multicultural environment’. They call it co-living. This wording tries to romanticise the very precarious situation so many young people find themselves in all over Europe. Living with strangers is not a cool personal preference – it’s our only option.

What has the housing crisis got to do with mental health?

The cost of rent, the anxiety of not finding a place to live or having to rely on your parents’ financial support are fears that many young people throughout Europe share.

The uncertainty makes it almost impossible for young people to even think about having children. Let alone buying a house without a stable job. It changes our major life choices. It can make us feel trapped and worthless. This insecurity about the future creates constant stress and concern about what will happen next.

Housing struggles can lead to uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety, feeling uncomfortable or feeling depressed. These feelings can also worsen any existing mental health conditions. The majority of homeless young people are already dealing with mental health issues, which can make it even harder for them to overcome the housing hurdles.

I would like to see an EU mental health strategy. We need an Europe-wide approach to mental health. So no matter where in Europe you’re from, mental health services are affordable and accessible to all of us. And, of course, we have to ensure access to affordable homes for everyone.

Unemployment: how does it affect youth mental health?

Marco Piana

Marco from Pavia, Italy

Marco is 26 years old. He told us how being unemployed has affected him mentally and how it is affecting youth mental health in general.

Marco, how did it feel being unemployed during the pandemic?

I was 24 when I moved from Copenhagen to Brussels, hoping to start my working life soon.

After the first few days, I understood that the level of competition to get a paid internship related to my interests (International Relations and Cooperation) was very high. The job market was saturated. I tried to find a job in a bar, a restaurant or a shop. Without it I would not have been able to pay my bills. But, unfortunately, within two weeks everything closed down.

So, I lowered my expectations and simply hoped to find any source of income as soon as possible. I carried on through aseemingly infinite series of application forms and subsequent rejections. They always started with, “Despite your profile being highly qualified for the position, on this occasion, we’ve decided not to take your application further”. Or again, “I’m writing to let you know that you’ve not been selected for an interview, but we are sure you will find something else in the future, considering your brilliant profile!”. But my profile alone wasn’t enough. I needed work experience before I could get work experience.

I spent months in a precarious condition, both mentally and financially. Covid-19 restrictions and the lockdown had a further negative impact on my daily routine. After six months, I had almost reached a burnout. Eventually, I had to go back home to Italy for a few months, which made me feel worse. I thought I had lost the battle to win a job.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic and unemployment affected young people?

In the end, I decided to give up on a paid job and start an unpaid internship to keep boosting my CV. It definitely did – and at least I felt like I was doing something.

I’m lucky enough that my family was able to support me in one way or the other. But, despite the various part-time jobs I had on the side, I’ve always been dependent on somebody. More than once, I felt that my very dignity was being stripped away from me. Such a feeling of inadequacy made me doubt my skills. It also made me second guess the choices I’d made and lose confidence in the employment system.

Have you had a similar experience in the last two years? You are not alone.

According to research by Eurostat, in 2020 there were almost 14 million young adults (aged 20–34) who were neither in employment nor in education and training.

A recent study by the European Parliament showed that young people were particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

This is what the study found on employment and youth mental health:
  • The pandemic hit hardest in the hospitality sector. It employs many students who couldn’t afford to lose their only source of income.
  • Many employers are reluctant to hire young people due to lack of experience. But we can’t get experience without getting a job. This creates an impossible situation for young people trying to find work after finishing their education.
  • Young people are more likely to sign temporary contracts. But those were also the first ones that were terminated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus the most precarious.

Another Europe-wide study found that mental wellbeing has reached its  lowest level  across all age groups since the start of the pandemic over two years ago. Young people have experienced more loneliness, depression and social isolation than any other age group.

What is being done to tackle unemployment and youth mental health in the EU?

2022 is the European Year of Youth, which aims to shine a light on the importance of on the importance of giving a voice to the challenges that our youth has to undergo. EU Member States have submitted their investment plans to improve overall living standards for young people in the European Union, after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kim Van Sparrentak, one of the Greens/EFA’s youngest MEPs, addressed the issue last February with a brilliant speech in the European Parliament debate, “One youth, one Europe”.

The Greens/EFA Group works hand in hand with the FYEG (the umbrella organisation for Young Greens in Europe). Together, we’re campaigning for a ban on unpaid internships. We want a minimum standard of rights for young people’s working conditions.

For me, this would be the first practical step to fill a gap that too many young people have to undergo before being able to earn a decent, dignified income and start their transition into adulthood.

Climate anxiety: how does climate change affect young people’s mental health?

Tim Cullen

Timothy from Trier, Germany

Timothy is 26 years old, and of Scottish and German nationality. Together we discussed how climate change affects youth mental health and fuels young people’s anxiety.

What is climate anxiety exactly?

Climate anxiety is a form of psychological distress from the threat posed by the climate crisis. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, but its effects are widespread. A recent study from Germany showed that 55% of young people were concerned by the impacts of climate change on their wellbeing.

As young people, we tend to experience climate anxiety more intensely. We are the generation that will bear the consequences of a warming planet. Climate anxiety among the youth is often attributed to a sense of powerlessness that arises when governments do too little to stop climate change.

We have now reached a period where we’re seeing the consequences of climate change unfold in front of our eyes. We have all witnessed or even been personally affected by natural disasters like forest fires, droughts and floods. There is a sense of inevitability about climate change. Too little is being done, too late. Climate anxiety in young people has shot up, as they fear for their own and the planet’s future.

This anxiety is also fuelled by the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, that tells us that these climate disasters will get worse if governments do not start acting now. Inaction on climate change means inaction on protecting youth mental health.

Timothy, can you tell us what climate anxiety means to you?

Climate anxiety to me is a deeply personal experience. Last year, I witnessed the devastation caused by severe floods close to my hometown of Trier, in the west of Germany. More than 200 people in Europe lost their lives to the floods.

I remember the emotions of that summer well. I felt sad and powerless watching the news. It was that same sense of helplessness I experienced during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only this time, the catastrophe hit so close to home.

My fear today is that these types of events will happen over and over again. It is a sad reality. Especially, because climate anxiety does not feel like something young people should be dealing with. As a young person, I should not have to worry about the ignorance and inaction of governments in the fight against climate change. Climate anxiety is an unnecessary burden on the backs of young people.

What can we do about climate anxiety?

First, we absolutely need more affordable and accessible mental health services.

If governments really want to show that they take climate anxiety seriously, then they should do everything in their power to improve mental health care. This also includes more funding for research into mental health issues.

Thankfully, I have seen that despite all obstacles, our generation is a resilient one. After a 2-year absence, we saw climate activists return to the streets for the first global climate strike since the pandemic.

What I have found out for myself is that attending a rally makes me overcome the many negative emotions I associate with climate change. I feel empowered and find a sense of belonging, as I see that my generation is in this fight together. It really helps put my mind at ease a bit.

Ultimately, the only way we can eliminate climate anxiety as one of the roots for mental health problems is to mitigate climate change. We need clear climate action and we need it now. (Read how the Greens/EFA have been pushing for climate action in the EU).

We must keep up the pressure. Our most powerful tool to hold decision-makers to account is to take the fight for climate justice to the streets. We must demand that politicians act now. Not just for the sake of our mental health, but for a worthwhile future on our beautiful planet.

So, where do we go from here?

Most of us will have a mental health problem at some point in our life. Every young person in need of therapy services deserves access to appropriate therapy options, regardless of their financial situation.

We need an EU mental health strategy. We need mental health services that are affordable and accessible to all. And especially for the poorest, for migrants and for the most vulnerable.

To fix the mental health crisis for young people, we need:

We realise that there are no quick fixes to big problems like unemployment, housing and the climate crisis. Yet, our stories show that young people’s mental health concerns should be taken seriously. We are tired of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are tired of the mental health pandemic.

Clearly, we are now at a crossroads. EU governments either keep ignoring the root causes for mental health or start acting. We hope that our stories have given them some food for thought.

Now we want to hear from you!

What are your experiences with mental health during the pandemic? Do you have climate anxiety? What are your thoughts on the war in Ukraine? We are looking forward to hear from under this Instagram post.

We will be in the comments to reply – see you there!