France’s health chief warns over steep rise in mental illness during pandemic

French health services have reported a steep rise in mental health issues as people grapple with nine months of lockdowns, financial troubles and anxiety over Covid-19.

France's health chief warns over steep rise in mental illness during pandemic
France's Director General of Health Jérôme Salomon. Photo: AFP

France's second lockdown appears to be working to curb the number of cases of Covid-19, with the health minister declaring “we have passed the peak” of the second wave earlier this week.

READ ALSO IN NUMBERS Reasons to be optimistic about the Covid-19 situation in France

But nine months of pandemic and its associated lockdowns, travel restrictions and economic damage are taking a steep toll on the nation's mental health, warned Director General of Health Jérôme Salomon.

In his weekly briefing on Tuesday, Salomon focused on the mental health aspects of the crisis, saying: “We must all be made aware of the consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic on the mental health of the population.

“This epidemic is stressful, anxiety-provoking and can generate psychological suffering for many of us.

“We are thus observing a significant increase in depressive illnesses. The number of people affected doubled between the end of September and the beginning of November”.

Although anyone can be affected, he said that public health body Santé Publique France had noted that those particularly badly impacted included “people in very difficult financial situations, people with a history of mental illness, people who are not working and the young”.

He suggested that people take care of their mental health by staying in touch with family and friends, avoiding being connected to news or social media all day, trying to create a regular schedule, taking care of physical health through diet and exercise and avoiding over-consumption of tobacco and alcohol.

He added: “You should never hesitate to consult a professional.”

Doctors and therapists in France are working as normal and many are offering online consultations for people unable to travel or worried about using public transport.

Salomon also urged people to take care of their loved ones' mental health, suggesting a list of questions to ask, including

  • Is your sleep disturbed?
  • Do you feel stressed, irritable or anxious?
  • Do you have trouble concentrating, sadness, loss of appetite, lack of energy?
  • Have you increased your consumption of alcohol and tobacco?

He added: “The psychological dimension of the crisis we are going through is important, let's continue with our solidarity, attentive to our loved ones, our neighbours, our friends.

“Let's take care of each other and don't hesitate to talk about it, to consult our doctor and get help”.

A 24/7 helpline has been set up for people in need of psychological support: 0800 130 000.   

There also exists in France an English-language helpline that provides emotional support for English-speakers in France – SOS Helpline can be reached on 01 46 21 46 46.

The Samaritans can be reached on 116 123.

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French doctors to stage more strikes in February

General practitioners in France are planning another industrial action that will see doctors' offices closed as they call for better investment in community healthcare.

French doctors to stage more strikes in February

Primary care doctors in France announced plans to strike again in February, after walkouts in December and over the Christmas-New Year holidays in early January.

The strike will take place on Tuesday, February 14th, and it comes just a few weeks ahead of the end-of-February deadline where France’s social security apparatus, Assurance Maladie, must reach an agreement to a structure for fees for GPs for the next five years.

Hospital doctors in France are largely barred from striking, but community healthcare workers such as GPs are self-employed and therefore can walk out. 

Their walk-out comes amid mass strike actions in February over the French government’s proposed pension reform. You can find updated information on pensions strikes HERE.

Previous industrial action led to widespread closures of primary care medical offices across the country. In December, strike action saw between 50 to 70 percent of doctor’s surgeries closed.

READ MORE: Urgent care: How to access non-emergency medical care in France

New concerns among GPs

According to reporting by La Depeche, in the upcoming strike in February primary care doctors will also be walking out over a new fear – the possibility of compulsory ‘on-call’ hours.

Currently, French GPs take on-call hours on a voluntary basis. Obligatory on-call time for primary care doctors was scrapped in the early 2000s after GPs mobilised against the requirement.

However, representatives from the Hospital Federation have called for it to be reinstated in order to help relieve emergency services.

Additionally, GPs are calling for Saturday shifts to considered as part of their standard working week, in order to allow for a two-day weekend.

Striking primary care doctors are more broadly calling for actions by the government and Assurance Maladie to help make the field more appealing to younger physicians entering the profession, as the country faces more medical deserts, and for working conditions to be improved.

Those walking out hope to see administrative procedures to be simplified and for the basic consultation fee – typically capped to €25 – to be doubled to €50.

In France patients pay the doctor upfront for a visit, and then a portion of the fee is reimbursed by the government via the carte vitale health card.