Q&A: Fanni-Laura Mäntylä – Chair of Mental Health & Healthy Workforce Committee for the European Health Parliament (EHP)

Fanni-Laura Mantyla - Chair of Mental Health & Healthy Workforce Committee for the European Health Parliament (EHP) Fanni-Laura Mantyla receiving award at European Health Parliament

Following the European Health Parliament’s (EHP) Virtual Plenary on 9 September, EPF had the chance to speak with Fanni-Laura Mäntylä, the Chair of the Mental Health and Healthy Workforce Committee. We discussed her patient advocate experience as well as her committee’s resulting recommendations and their intended impact in the near future. Here’s what she had to say:

Can you talk us through your experience as a patient advocate?

Experiencing burnout and depression was a shock for me. I did not understand that I was depressed because why would I be depressed? I felt exhausted, stressed out, sad, angry and super scared for anyone to find out! I thought that if I told anyone about my feelings, I could not leave it to rest, but I’d have to put twice the energy to convince them not to be too scared or sorry for me. This is how I continued for way too long, the emotions bottling up and making me feel even worse, negligence towards daily activities taking more and more space. On a summer day in 2010, as I was admitted to a psychiatric ward, I finally called my parents and told them I wasn’t feeling well.

In 2012, I finally opened up to a larger audience with my condition. Though I was still in a very ill phase, going in and out of hospitals and anxiety attacks, I realized that I AM NOT my depression. It is something I have, just like I have type 1 diabetes. I never define myself by my diabetes - why should I define myself by the Major Depressive Disorder I have? I told my close ones this is why I’ve been pretty absent and acting strange for the past years. It’s affecting me but I’m fighting it. They were relieved as well; it was easier now for them to offer help. The path to openness, to break self stigmatisation and the stigma of a mental health issue from the outside world was a long one to walk. A person with depressive disorder learns to not believe in anything but self-hatred. It was however a lesson needed to be learned and a way to recover, because actually hiding the illness is what made me the most anxious around people: “What if I can’t make it? What if someone notices? How can I get out without no-one knowing?”

I never thought of becoming a patient advocate, but it seemed my method and comfort in talking about my situation stood out. In 2013, I was invited to tell my story in a Finnish documentary for television and later on I was asked to become a member in a Youth Jury promoting the various situations young people are regarding labour markets. Youth disability pensions due to mental health reasons were on the rise in Finland, but the view of the situation often excluded that of the young themselves. 

Since 2015, I’ve been a member in a Finnish organisation giving a voice for those who are Experts by Experience. With the organisation I’ve been giving speeches at schools and with members of the parliament, shared my experience but also gained a lot of knowledge from meeting so many people with different backgrounds and different stories. At the same time my rehabilitation from depression was difficult due to my diabetes, and I learned to value a more holistic idea towards all health. My glucose levels and stress continue to affect my daily mood, so in order for good mental health I can’t focus on just one aspect of life. 

I’m a member in the Customer Panel and Panel of Expert by Experience in Finland's biggest healthcare provider Helsinki University Hospital HUS, bringing up the voice of the patients. In 2019, I took advocacy to another level by attending the EPF Summer Training for Young Patient Advocates. In December I got the opportunity to attend EPF Congress, after which I was invited to a workshop by the EU Commission. I also got accepted to become a member in the fifth Edition of European Health Parliament, where I ran and was voted to become the Chair of the Committee of Mental Health and Healthy Workforce. Last spring, I also fulfilled my wish of becoming a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Professional. Funnily enough, I never thought to make my illness into a career, however I look forward to combining these two expertise - the Professional and the Experience - in whatever the future holds for me!

What are your thoughts on your Committee? What type of a turn did the work take over the past few months, and what role did COVID-19 play?

When we started the Committee work, I stated that even though I have personal experience in the matter, I’m sure every single member of the Committee has experience with stress. We would not get burned out by making a stand about burnout, and I believe this was the defining moment for the Committee. We continued to keep up the excitement to have a say in the matter and as Chair, I valued to make the best use of the different expertise of the members. Due to COVID-19, all our physical meetings since February were cancelled, which meant a lot of evening calls to suit people’s schedules. I’m sure I speak with everyone’s voice saying the EHP experience wasn’t the same without the trainings and casually catching up during the sessions. We however of course wouldn’t have it any other way. The situation is what it is, but for our specific Committee, the situation also raised the stakes to deliver and distribute the ideas to the MEPs, stakeholders in the matter and other public.

What do you think is now key to ensure EU health policy development is efficient, sustainable and aligned with the direction the EHP imagines it in the coming years?

Mental Health is on the agenda with COVID-19 and I believe we have done well in the Policy Recommendation to highlight its relevance. I feel an important part of our recommendation is the fact that the issue of a healthy and sustainable work life demands action and engagement in all levels and with all relevant stakeholders, but on the other hand also these actions will be in the benefit of everyone. Now, the EU loses around € 610 billion a year due to Mental Health but it doesn’t have to be so. A Finnish study has shown that one euro invested in Mental Health Work comes back as 5 euros. I believe that preventive measures against psychosocial occupational safety and health risks and the promotion of openness and mentally safe work environment could add up even more by affecting productivity, quality of work, engagement as well as creativity and innovation. The EHP has taught me to not look at mental health by only the humane costs that I know are there and honestly should be enough - this time I can base the importance of our actions with numbers, which tend to work better with policy makers. What the MEPs need to do however is call for a more intersectional approach to policy making - the topic of Mental Health needs to be addressed at Health, Employment, Social and Economy sectors!

Any more thoughts?

I feel so privileged to be able to advocate and work on behalf of something I feel so passionate about. I hope for more acknowledgement of mental wellbeing and open discussion on mental health issues. I am not depression, I had depression. I might have depression once more, but it is not who I am and it is not who you are. <3