Growing demand among students for mental health services

The coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the mental well-being of students even after a return to Finland's university campuses.

Students lunching in the cafeteria of the Porthania building, University of Helsinki on 28 September 2021. Image: Katriina Laine / Yle

Demand among university students for mental health services this autumn has been higher than total annual levels in the past, according to the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS).

In September, about 3,300 students were assessed for the need for mental health services, and in October the number was almost the same, according to the medical director of FSHS' mental health services, Tommi Väyrynen. Earlier this year, an average of 2,100 of these assessments were made per month.

Some 85 percent of visits to student mental health service units are related to anxiety and depression, Väyrynen said.

A sharp rise was seen as early as last year when the number of students seeking help with mental health issues went up by a quarter compared to 2019.

"The return of students to campuses has not alleviated the situation, but rather had the opposite effect," Väyrynen stated.

He added that in some localities, students have to wait two to three months to get treatment at FSHS service units. In other places, access to professional care is faster.

"That's a long time to wait. I recommend that students familiarise themselves with the various self-care programmes available, as these are an important part of treatment as a whole. Exercise, maintaining normal sleep rhythms and social contacts, as well as eating healthily promote recovery," Väyrynen said.

He also emphasised that work is already being done to shorten the queues.

"FSHS has received a state grant to take additional measures, and we have opened an anonymous chat service and further facilitated the assessment of the need for care with these chats. We are awaiting a decision on new government grants so we can hire more staff," the director said, adding that the issue cannot be solved by health care alone.

"It is important that students receive support and other welfare services, for example through their universities. We provide more if that is not enough," Väyrynen said.

"A big problem set to explode"

Johanna Rita, a 29-year-old student in Tampere, has collected dozens of personal stories from university students about how the coronavirus pandemic has shattered students' physical and mental well-being. Rita is writing a book based on these experiences.

This autumn, Rita herself was able to return to contact teaching.

"It has had an absolutely incredible effect on my own motivation and joy in life, when I can get out of bed every morning, do my makeup, go to school, see people and talk to them spontaneously," is how Rita described the change.

On the other hand, she said she found that the corridors are not as crowded as they were before the pandemic.

"Not everyone is as enthusiastic about going back to school, which is a little sad. Now that people are used to being at home, it can be pretty hard to leave. That, I think, is the next thing that needs to be dealt with," Rita explained.

She further noted that this may be due to some people preferring distance learning to contact teaching. However, while writing her book, she has heard countless stories about how detrimental the effects of distance learning have been, and how mental health services have been backed up for months.

"I think this is a big problem set to explode," Johanna Rita warned.

Expanded service

As of this year, FSHS's student health care services have included not only university students but also vocational college students.

Following the change, FSHS's services now cover about 270,000 students in higher education, and it has expanded the number of its service units.

Anne Komulainen, who is the medical director for dentistry at the Finnish Student Health Service, told Yle that most of the pressure is currently on FSHS telephone services, from which students are directed to care services.

"Of course, there is an increased demand for mental health services. In the field of oral health, vocational students in particular have been very active in applying for services," she said.

However, it is difficult to estimate how much of the increase in demand is related to the coronavirus situation and how much to the expansion of services, Komulainen noted.

"Perhaps there is now a lower threshold for seeking treatment."

There have been some individual delays in access to treatment, Komulainen added, mainly due to staff recruitment delays in the spring, but work is ongoing to clear backlogs and facilitate smoother access to healthcare services for students.

"We try to avoid time-wasting referrals to the wrong professional. Based on the assessment of the student's need for care, each area's team determines what kind of help he or she needs. When a callback comes to a student, it comes directly from the right professional," Komulainen explained.