The European mental-health strategy should recognise the burdens women face—and the role of culture in lightening them.
Last month we celebrated the day of women in science. From the socialist group in the European Parliament, we wanted to pay tribute to all those researchers and discoverers who have suffered throughout history from the ‘Matilda effect’. Associated with the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage, this term refers to all those women who have been subject to prejudice in scientific research and whose work is attributed to male counterparts.
Today, on Women’s Day, we should remember all those women swept from history by the Matilda effect—not only in science but also in arts and culture. A recent study by the historians Semíramis González, Marta Pérez Ibáñez and Carolina Rodovalho in Spain shows that women only occupy 27 per cent of gallery catalogues and the price of their works is lower. Women’s artworks represent just 3-5 per cent of major permanent art collections in Europe and men’s artworks sell for 18 per cent more.
Many of these creative women had to abandon their projects to devote themselves to care of their children. Women have suffered for years the oppressive burden of a division of tasks and a distribution of roles in which masculinist values prevail. Care of children and the elderly is usually delegated to women in all cultures. These tasks receive no social recognition, despite the enormous emotional and mental wear and tear they cause.
As the World Health Organization points out, the proportion of women who suffer from depression or anxiety is significantly higher: 70 per cent have mental-health problems, compared with 30 per cent of men. This is profoundly related to structural and gender factors. The psychological burden is greater for working women than working men, since the work of planning, organising and decision-making in the home continues to be assumed mostly by women.
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The European Parliament has taken the mental-health crisis, and its gender dimension, very seriously. Although from 2006 the parliament had been asking for specific actions from the European Commission on mental health, it was not until the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis that the commission responded, via the 2022 state-of-the-union speech of its president Ursula von der Leyen, to the urgent necessity of a European mental-health strategy. From this point, inter-institutional negotiations began to design the strategy while civil society was consulted.
The parliament, for its part, has adopted several resolutions on this subject during this parliamentary term. In a July 2020 resolution on the European Union’s public-health strategy following Covid-19, the parliament recognised mental health as a fundamental human right and called for an EU action plan. In 2021 it called for the ‘right to disconnect’ from work outside working hours without negative consequences.
In July last year, the parliament adopted a resolution highlighting the need to put mental health on a par with physical health in the digital world of work and another calling for the implementation of broader and stronger policies on care, emphasising the role of carers. In February 2022, it had agreed a further resolution centred on the impact the pandemic had had on the mental health of young people, also putting the focus on their delicate working environment. In reports relating to other domains, such as housing, poverty or the Child Guarantee, mental health has meanwhile appeared as a transversal and increasingly pressing concern.
The strategy will be published in the second quarter of this year and for now the expectations are promising. The demands of civil society may not fall on deaf ears: one perceives a willingness to act on mental health from a psychosocial approach and in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights, based on the foundations of the welfare state: health, the environment, the working world, education and culture.
The results of the call for data launched by the commission in January have already been analysed. One of the conclusions is to signal the importance of art and the humanities as a great source of wellbeing which can, moreover, offer a therapeutic route for people with mental disorders.
Advocacy for the cultivation of the humanities must however go beyond the outputs and their practical utility, be that in terms of health or education. It is not a matter just of recognising their presence in the school curriculum or prescribing them as therapy. Rather, it is about embedding them anew in social reality while being aware that their value is immeasurable and, therefore, not reducible to any kind of calculation.
The New European Bauhaus is an example of this paradigm shift. The initiative, launched two years ago by the commission, is a project of unprecedented creativity—a change in philosophy, patterns of thought and ways of understanding the world for new historical times. It confers on culture and aesthetics, for the first time, an essential role, as well as adding renewed value to the economic, social and technological dimensions so necessary to the construction of our identity.
All the great civilisations have been built on the foundations of cultural power. Without culture there is no collective identity and without identity there is no possibility of mental wellbeing.
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Books and reading key
The book and reading play, therefore, a key role. The ‘E-READ’ project funded by the commission brought together more than a hundred academics and scientists specialised in literacy, reading and publishing, who for four years devoted themselves to the task of understand the effects of digitalisation on reading. Reading could be favouring inability to read, due to the tendency to scan digitalised text in a fragmented manner—undermining the capacity for concentration and profound understanding.
One of the neuroscientists involved with the project, Maryanne Wolf, warns that ‘the ability to read in depth is closely related to some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalised knowledge, analogous reasoning and inference, perspective-taking and empathy, critical analysis and knowledge generation’. Because of this, EU member states continue to develop plans to promote reading in paper format, without forgetting the advantages which, according to some studies, digital reading has for certain groups—for example, those with special needs or disabilities of some kinds.
Speaking of reading, in Spain the new baccalaureate curriculum includes a canon of 26 figures: 18 men and eight women. The latter are Hypatia of Alexandria, Aspasia of Miletus, Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir and Maria Zambrano.
So let’s continue working on these initiatives, making invisible artists visible and reading their works, because culture is a guarantee of mental health.