Helsinki kids face delays in getting help from school psychologists

A spike in students seeking help during distance learning periods has calmed, but schools in Helsinki still struggle to provide psychological services to kids within legal time limits.

Image: Benjamin Suomela / Yle

As the Covid crisis prompted schools in the greater Helsinki area to conduct classes remotely, there was a major spike in students reaching out to school psychologists.

Amid the distance learning rules and other restrictions, there was a 20 percent jump in students seeking appointments with school psychologists, which meant hundreds more than usual, according to Vesa Nevalainen, the city's student welfare manager.

"The [students'] topic of discussions weren't directly related to Covid, but to the frustration and anxiety caused by the restrictions," he explained.

Now that distance learning is a relatively distant memory, the situation has calmed. Nevalainen noted that the reintroduction of classroom teaching has levelled off the strain felt by school psychologists, saying they had returned to pre-Covid levels.

He noted that the spike in students seeking help from psychologists as restrictions were at their highest was a sign that distance learning is not good, saying that schools are more than simply buildings in which to learn. Nevalainen added that students also appear to be able to recover quickly from unexpected situations.

Nevertheless, the student welfare manager also said that the city's children and young people suffered greatly during the restrictions and distance learning as they were cut off from interactions at school, weren't allowed to sing and were banned from taking part in hobbies.

Similar development in Espoo

The need for school psychologists also shrank when students and pupils returned to schools in the City of Espoo.

The city's student care chief, Terhi Pippuri, said that the need for school psychologists had stabilised to pre-crisis levels, adding that the important role schools play in the lives of children became even clearer during the distance learning period.

"School is more than just a place to learn, it enables everyday encounters and is a prerequisite for well-being," she said.

Espoo children have also been able to engage in more everyday activities than they could last year, with Pippuri saying that the development has played a role in improving the well-being of youngsters.

Need for school psychologists remains

Although the pressure on school psychologists in Helsinki and Espoo has lightened, students still need help from them.

Helsinki's welfare manager Nevalainen said that young people's problems have not disappeared however.

One problem is that the city's school psychologists are still unable to meet all of the demand within periods required by law, despite the fact that Helsinki has hired one dozen such counsellors over the past five years.

Some children in Espoo are still dealing with anxiety and mental health challenges, according to Pippuri.

The lowering of Covid-related restrictions and re-introduction of classroom teaching has slightly improved the well-being of children. Nevalainen said that was an indication that school staff members are the only adults which many young people dare to talk to about their problems — along with their friends.

"Generally, we know that children enjoy school. This is a good reminder that humans are social creatures," Nevalainen said.