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More than 100,000 youth face mental health disorders, long queues for care

A citizens' initiative is underway to reduce the waiting time for patients to access mental health services.

Terapiatakuu mienilmaisu Säätytalon edessä.
Mental health advocates demonstrate in Helsinki for better access to medical services. Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle

As wait times for mental healthcare services can be up to three months long in Finland, a citizens' initiative to decrease the waiting time has been signed by more than 40,000 people.

At least 50,000 signatures are needed for the initiative to proceed to parliament for consideration. If successful, speeding up access to mental healthcare services would cost an estimated 35 million euros a year – a sum that mental health groups say would be recouped within a few years through improved workforce participation.

A particular group of concern is Finnish youth, as one in five suffers from a mental health disorder requiring immediate help. Last year, more than one hundred thousand people aged 13 to 24 required mental health services.

The umbrella association of mental health organisations (Mielenterveysjärjestöt) was responsible for kick-starting the citizens' initiative for a therapy guarantee that would ensure that long waiting times would become history. Their goal is to ensure that it's possible to gain access to psychotherapy or other forms of care within a month of an initial visit to a healthcare centre, and that an assessment of the need for treatment would be made immediately after the first request for assistance.

Critical need for immediate access

The critical need for immediate access to therapy is driving the citizens' initiative, according to project head Alviina Alametsä of the Finnish mental health pool (Mielenterveyspooli).

”If a person has self-harming tendencies or symptoms, or feels very bad, three months is an incredibly long time to wait for help,” she says.

According to estimates, only half of those suffering from mental disorders receive the help they need.

Number of patients growing, but number of doctors not

Demand for specialised medical care for youth psychiatry is growing: in the capital region the number of referrals has increased by 40 percent over the past decade.

According to Laura Häkkinen, a youth psychiatrist and senior physician at Helsinki University Central Hospital (HUS), about 15 percent of young people in Finland are covered by basic services as their mental health problems are mild or moderate. Nevertheless, every tenth youth receives specialised mental health medical care. According to Häkkinen the problem is that the basic level of services doesn’t work as quickly as it should.

“Youth mental health disorders are reasonably easy to identify and care for, so treatment should start as early as possible,” she says.

Delays in access to treatment are largely due to a lack of labour resources.

Resources for early intervention?

The citizens' initiative aims to ensure early treatment and make it easier and quicker to access short-term therapy.

Implementing the initiative would require hiring new employees and continuing with existing training. There is already a shortage of workers in specialised mental health care. Last year, of 68 youth psychiatric specialists' posts at HUS, 10-15 were unfilled.

Though speeding up access to mental health services with the therapy guarantee would cost some 35 million euros, mental health organisations say that the investment would pay for itself within a few years as early intervention would decrease work absenteeism and sick leaves.

Last year, mental health was the most common reason for people in their 20s to take sick leave.

”Specialised medical care is much more expensive than early intervention through therapy, for example,” says Häkkinen.

Access to services is poor

Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Krista Kiuru and parliamentary Social Affairs and Health Committee vice chair Mia Laiho both support the therapy guarantee initiative.

“Access to mental health services for children and adolescents in some parts of Finland is poor and not really optimal anywhere,” says Laiho.

”When there’s an emergency, whether it’s for a wounded knee or mind, it’s important to receive attention quickly,” says Kiuru.

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