A study published in 2010 by Stefan Priebe assessed the prevalence of mental disorders among war-affected populations across five Balkan countries, including Serbia. These territories had a higher number of people suffering from mental issues than non-war-affected populations. The study concludes that the “prevalence rates of mental disorders among war-affected people vary across countries but are generally high. War experiences appear to be linked to anxiety and mood disorders.” In Serbia, the government and organizations are taking steps to address these issues. Mental health in Serbia requires consistent efforts for progress to be visible.
The Impacts of the War and Poverty
Serbia’s historical stressors have impacted the mental health of individuals. A research article by Dusica Lecic Tosevski and others explains these stressors as “civil war in neighboring countries, United Nations (U.N.) economic sanctions, which lasted for 3.5 years and 11 weeks of NATO bombing in 1999.” As a result, Serbians grappled with damaged/destroyed infrastructure, significant populations of refugees and internally displaces persons, financial struggles, social unrest and a failing health care system. The same research article highlights that the existence of mental health conditions rose by 13.5% between 1999 and 2002 alone.
Poverty and unemployment also impact mental health in Serbia. The at-risk-of-poverty rate stands at 21.2% in Serbia, meaning that one-fifth of Serbians have a monthly income of just above €200. The populations most vulnerable to falling into poverty are children/youth and the elderly. According to the National Employment Service data, at the close of February 2023, about 430,000 people faced unemployment, although this number has visibly decreased over the years.
Furthermore, Serbia is among the 10 European countries with the highest rates of income inequality, according to UNICEF. The most affluent 20% of the Serbian population had six times more proceeds compared to the most impoverished 20%. Unfortunately, enduring poverty or the risk of poverty places stress on a person that could contribute to mental health deterioration.
Mental Health in Numbers
According to the World Health Organization Mental Health Atlas 2020, Serbia has a distinct piece of mental health legislation published in 2013 that aligns with all human rights covenants. Individuals are also fully insured for mental health services and associated medicines and treatments. Serbia has about 492 psychiatrists and 1,875 mental health nurses. The country also has seven mental health hospitals and 36 psychiatric units in general hospitals.
Advancing Mental Health in Serbia
The mental health and well-being of children and youth in Serbia stand as one of UNICEF’s priorities. According to UNICEF, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health conditions across populations, particularly among the younger generation. UNICEF’s assessment shows that about 4% of the general population in Serbia showed signs of depression while almost 11% of students experienced negative moods and about 22% felt anxiety and nervousness at least weekly.
“Mental health services are not well connected with other systems, and therefore on a practical level are unable to provide timely and adequate response and referral to prevent minor mental health issues from developing into conditions,” says UNICEF.
In response, UNICEF will be supporting the Serbian government and other key players to increase access and availability of mental health and well-being initiatives for young people, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Through a collaborative approach involving “awareness-raising campaigns, online tools development, mental health education in schools and youth centers and strengthening capacities of professionals,” UNICEF aims to advance mental health in Serbia.
In October 2022, UNICEF Serbia revealed its plans to create a support system for the young in the country who face mental health issues by cooperating with the private and business sectors.
The Hemofarm Foundation and the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade with the support of the Ministry of Health created the Unbreakable campaign in April 2021 to address the growing mental health needs of people, raise awareness of the mental health issues impacting populations and provide information and resources for people seeking help. The campaign used billboards, its website, email helplines and an anonymous SOS hotline to provide support and information and raise awareness.
The campaign creators estimate that within the first nine months, the campaign had reached more than 1 million individuals and received close to 9,000 inquiries and requests for help or more information.
The Serbian telecommunications operator company, Telekom Srbija, supported the establishment of the free SOS hotline, which operated 24/7 and ran with the assistance of 40 mental health professionals.
Through ongoing efforts and collaborative partnerships, there is hope for mental health in Serbia to improve. And initiatives that prioritize the mental health and well-being of the country’s people hold the potential to ensure lasting change.
– Klaudia Laura Sebestyen