World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2023: Finland must become a leader in mental health treatment

What does it mean to miss an opportunity to be world-class?

Despite its small size, in the early 2000s Finland was still at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys measuring educational performance. Since then, however, because there was no real investment in education, Finland has been steadily declining in the PISA rankings. As a result, many of the countries that have followed our earlier example have moved ahead of Finland.

The slough in the PISA results should spur us to realise the importance of promoting the factors that enable long-term success in Finnish society. Today, 10 October is World Mental Health Day, and is an appropriate occasion for focusing on mental health and resilience.

The financial cost of mental health problems in Finland – around 11 billion euro annually – has been known for years. This figure is from 2018, and much has happened in the world since then. The war in Europe, changes in the economic situation, and, in the case of students in particular, the coronavirus pandemic have added to the difficulties. One can only guess what the real financial cost for 2023 will be. The cost for 2018 is unlikely to cover it.

The Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS), which also provides mental health services to students, has seen an increase of more than 250% in the number of assessments of need for treatment since 2019. Despite demand for services being significantly higher than expected, however, there has been no increase in funding. The number of young people on disability pension due to mental health problems has almost doubled since 2000. As a welfare state, we cannot afford this, especially as large numbers of people are reaching retirement age.

But all this is no reason for despondency. We have a chance to change course, but it cannot be achieved through hand-wringing and promises. We must take action, because we have all the capacity to be a model country for mental health.

As the new wellbeing services counties have come into operation and begin to find their role in Finnish society, we have an excellent opportunity to develop the entire social and healthcare system to make it truly pioneering in terms of mental health.

The FSHS, which is responsible for student mental health services, is a good example of a healthcare pioneer, as it been ahead of its time in areas such as preventive mental healthcare. And prevention plays a critical role in promoting mental health. For instance, FSHS has improved its care pathways and digital services to help more people get the care they need. So the expertise is there, all that’s needed is the boldness to invest.

The government aims to implement a therapy guarantee for children and young people, and free psychotherapist training. In addition, securing low-threshold services is crucial, and fortunately the government is investing in this also. However, small measures alone are not enough to set the current situation right. Finland needs to invest in livelihoods, as research shows that low incomes and poverty are linked with mental health problems. Healthcare must be well funded, as there is often no room for prevention or development of healthcare operations if all resources are expended on meeting the treatment time guarantee and on shortening waiting lists.

As a frontrunner in mental health, we have the potential to be a model country for education in the early 21st century, setting an example for the rest of the world. We would then be able to punch above our weight when it comes to offering social solutions for mental health problems. This time, however, we would not allow our lead to dwindle away but instead continue to invest in development projects related to mental health.

We could be a trailblazer in promoting and treating mental health if only we invest boldly now to improve the quality of preventive care and access to services. This would be in the interests of Finland as a whole, and would make a welfare state possible.

Sonja Naalisvaara
Social Policy Adviser (student finances, housing)

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