Be aware of the students’ special stage of life when promoting mental health

“The circumstances for students have changed a great deal since 2001. Back then we had the unending right to study, and many students studied at quite a leisurely pace without feeling stressed about the amount of time it was taking. The degree reform, the new restricted study time for a degree, and the cuts to the financial aid for students led to an increase in the number of stressed students who came to the surgery. Many students started saying that they were worried they would be labelled as bad students if they could not keep up.”

 

This is how Pauli Tossavainen, the recently retired former Medical Director for Mental Health at the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS), describes the changes that have taken place in the everyday lives of students in the nearly 20 years that he spent working at the FSHS.  (https://www.nyyti.fi/blogi/mielihenkilo-pauli-tossavainen-yths/)

 

Pauli’s experiences are also confirmed by The Finnish Student Health Survey (KOTT 2016), which shows that mental health problems among students have increased in the 21st century, and that currently up to 30 per cent of higher education students suffer from mental health symptoms. It is probably obvious that the psychological symptoms will reduce students’ ability to study, and at worst, the mental health problems can even cause a young adult to end up on disability pension.

 

It does not feel necessary to question whether decision-makers have identified the increase in mental health issues among young people. A more relevant question would be how the increase in mental health problems among students can be stopped – what’s the solution? No single clear reason has been found for the increase in mental health issues which could be solved through a specific measure. We need solutions for both the contents of and the access to services and the structures which are making young people and students ill, such as challenges relating to income.

 

What solutions is the new Government Programme offering?

 

The Government Programme contains a clear will to improve things for young people, including aims to stop the increase in mental health problems. The measures offered by the Government include promoting low-threshold support services for young people in line with the Child Strategy, such as psychologists’ services. The aim as part of the national programme for youth work and youth policy is to promote youth employment and mental health and to guarantee equal opportunities to access support as part of the Ohjaamo activities.

 

These are excellent things! Many of the problems that higher education students are facing stem from their early youth. Services which are aimed at all young people, such as Ohjaamo, are also being used by higher education students.

 

But I am also worried. The Youth Act defines a young person as someone under the age of 29, and the majority of students in higher education match this definition. But not all of them do, and if we are discussing the Child Strategy and student welfare services (which do not apply to students in higher education) in connection with young people, then one can conclude that higher education students are unlikely to be the target audience. It is also clear that if a young person has made it through the ordeal of entrance exams and got into university, they have better opportunities than for example the young people who are not at work or in education. Despite this, when we are aiming for, say, 75 per cent employment, then stopping the increase in mental health problems among young people and students should not be an either-or issue, but rather a both-and question.

 

My main interest when it comes to the Government Programme relates to the mental health strategy which is being prepared, and in particular its measures and aims. Students in higher education cannot be side-lined or simply classed as young people in these measures. Higher education studies and the student life is a particular life stage which should be viewed separately, and which requires unique solutions.

 

 

Government Programme entries on mental health:

 

  • As part of early childhood education and care and primary and lower secondary education, and in line with the Child Strategy, we will promote low-threshold support services for children, young people and families, such as maternity and child health clinic activities, psychologists’ services, home help services and family counselling, employment services, and high-quality student welfare services.

 

  • Our main themes for the national programme for youth work and youth policy are to prevent social exclusion and bolster inclusion among young people. The programme will also incorporate the following measures: creating a model for assessing individually and reliably every child’s ability to attend school, supporting minorities and preventing exclusion, promoting young people’s employment and mental health, addressing substance use and game addiction among young people, ensuring equal opportunities for young people to access face-to-face support as part of the Ohjaamo activities, and taking into account financial literacy skills and working life skills as part of young people’s wellbeing. We plan to improve the coordination of youth policy, to set up a ministerial working group for child and youth policy and to enhance cooperation between all those involved in youth policy. We aim to ensure the effectiveness of the services designed for young people, including indicators, assessment and research. We plan to encourage budgeting with a focus on children and young people.

 

  • Drawing on earlier work, the Government will prepare a mental health strategy with a focus on mental health as a resource. The strategy will secure people’s mental health rights and mental health services, incorporating them into existing structures. It will also prevent suicides and strengthen the competence of mental health professionals. The legislation on mental health and substance abuse services will be reformed at the same time.

 

Sonja Raitamäki

Social Policy Adviser at SYL

 

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