The pandemic has led to legitimate concern for how students are coping. Everyone seems to agree that measures need to be taken to support students.
But even though everyone seems to share the same concern, opposite views awaken as soon as we start looking for practical measures and sustainable solutions. Why is that? A cynic might say this, too, comes down to money. I would, however, claim that this is also a sign of the stigma which is particularly strong in relation to mental illnesses.
Where can we see this stigma?
Social norms dictate that it is not appropriate to talk about mental illness in the way we can talk about other illnesses. You may even have to consider carefully before you speak of past mental health challenges. Your options are to cover it up or risk encountering negative attitudes or even direct discrimination. Many do not necessarily want to speak about their mental health even to people they are close to – or they do not want to worry others.
Mental health issues often get downplayed, or people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge mental illnesses. On the other hand, people may think they are experts on the matter and try to use that against you. Mental health challenges are often seen as a personal problem for as long as possible. When it gets to a point where others are forced to act, they see the ill person as a nuisance who wants to cause problems.
No wonder, then, that problems have taken root in the structures of our society. At the moment getting help is no simple matter. It can take a long time to get therapy, and it can be expensive. The search for the right therapist can be difficult if the illness has affected one’s initiative and self-esteem. The search will inevitably include disappointments if the first therapist is not The One. People also have to pay for each attempt themselves. In practice those on low incomes are forced to apply for financial assistance from Kela. There are not enough professionals, so the waiting times get longer and longer, and the low-threshold services fill up. When applying even for a small amount of assistance can cause someone to lose other benefits – such as a reduction in their disability pension insurance – and they have to worry about a lack of understanding from their friends, family and colleagues, the individual is in a difficult position indeed.
It is easy to see how the attitudes and structures support each other.
The current process as a whole both gives the individual full responsibility and can also cause shame. However, research has shown that mental illnesses are a common problem. Statistics from the Finnish Centre for Pensions show that mental illnesses are the main reason for people taking disability pension. It should also be noted that according to the 2016 health survey for higher education students, up to one third of students were experiencing psychological challenges and a great deal of stress. At the moment we can only imagine what the results of this year’s health survey will show. According to many surveys, students have experienced more exhaustion, anxiety, and loneliness during the pandemic.
This is not just a problem for the individual, but without a doubt also for society as a whole. That is why it would not only be appropriate, but also in the public interest for policy makers to get to work. We cannot afford to let the situation continue like this – neither on a human nor on a financial level. There is also no point in looking for quick wins – a plaster will not fix an open wound.
SYL supports the implementation of the therapy guarantee, as people must be helped in a timely manner. We also support free psychotherapy training, as the only way to guarantee sufficient mental health services is to make sure there are enough professionals available to do the work. We demand that the criteria for the rehabilitation subsidy are temporarily reduced as a covid-related measure to make it easier to access therapy and to free up the capacity of low-threshold services.
These measures will also respond to the acute need if they are taken now, and not at some point in the distant future. All we need now is a genuine will to make these changes. Concern is not enough.