A study just published by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology and led by Hans Ulrich Wittchen, director of the institute of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at Germany’s Dresden University,  shows that 165 million Europeans have a mental illness!

Can this number be correct?

The comprehensive study took three years to complete—researchers looked at over 500 million people in 30 countries.

The researches checked for 100 mental illnesses, such as anxiety, bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia and major neurological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

In this Reuters’ article, Dr. Wittchen lamented the “treatment gap.” He and other experts point out that a substantial number of Europeans with mental illness will simply not be getting state-of-the-art treatment and/or not receiving treatment until the problem has progressed.

Because some of the EU member-states’ comprehensive health care systems appear to have both quality and delivery issues it seems in some cases, at least, that you are more likely to get good mental health care in Europe if you’re willing to pay for it directly. For example, as in the UK, there have been massive cuts in the number of providers in some locations, reaching as high as 10 percent as part of an NHS reform bill.

We recently exchanged emails with a psychiatrist (he also does psychoanalysis) who has a private practice in London—his schedule is packed, more than it’s ever been. And it’s not just the wealthy that are paying for his services.

“In the past few years I’ve been seeing more and more middle and even working class patients. I think, and I must be careful because I personally know fine physicians who work for the NHS, people are finding that they simply won’t get the same quality of care that they will with a private doctor [a later email exchange clarified that it was primarily the very long waiting times for treatment that are the problem for most people]. Certainly, during the past 10 years, Harley Street has lost it’s exclusive eclat and more “average” Brits are willing to pay for better care.”

We can’t pretend to give an overview of mental health care across Europe nor explain why some in private practice or the NHS aren’t keen on speaking out publicly. However, C.R.’s lived in the UK and maintains ties with friends and colleagues. The situation has definitely changed in the past fifteen years. Today, there are a growing number of private psychiatric hospitals and mental health providers in the UK.  Some Brits not only seek these private care when public options don’t meet their needs, sometimes they make private care their first choice.

Caroline, a window designer at a national British chain store, suffered from depression for two years before deciding to leave her NHS provider. She told C.R. she gave up Continental holidays and traded in her car for the tube, but is happy she made the choice to pay to see a private psychologist.

Others say that the quality of the NHS mental health care is very good to excellent, but there are wait times and the delays and paperwork that may be a drawback to getting timely mental health services. It’s no surprise that in 2010, the NHS made a five year plan to improve health care and make it more patient centered. And Prime Minister David Cameron has set in motion recent reform plans to shift some of its direction to physicians away from bureaucrats.

Yet many pundits say Cameron’s reforms will be a disaster. People are blogging about this issue at the Guardian.  (You can find several pages specifically about the way in which the reforms will affect those who need mental health care. )

The debate is heated and the fact that a large number of individuals in Great Britain (included in the 40 percent across Europe) have a mental health issue, the situation demands immediate attention. The NHS is beloved by many and many outstanding professionals work for the system. Both public and private organizations and concerned laypeople and professionals should continue to examine what the problems are and seek patient-centered solutions, whether or not those solutions are politically correct. As they should on this side of the pond, too!

Photo: NHS hospital in Norfolk, England by Katy Appleton.