Kristel Birgit Potsepp: Young people need more mental health support

Kristel Birgit Potsepp
Kristel Birgit Potsepp Source: Private collection

In Estonia, the birth rate, and attempts to artificially increase it through the provision of various subsidies, is a hot topic. However, it is also important to think about children growing up in a safe environment and receiving the required support even when their parents or carers are unable to provide it, writes Kristel Birgit Potsepp (SDE).

According to the national health foundation's register, suicide was the most common cause of death amongst those in the 10-24 age group in 2020. This was most pronounced in the 15-19 age group, where 12 out of the 19 recorded deaths were suicides. Suicide was also the leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds in 2019.

These are stark statistics, which reveal something about the quality of life for young people in Estonia.

Suicidal young people do not appear from nowhere. Suicide is generally the result of a process that takes years, (caused by) problems at home, at school, with peers, (or) with themselves. Young people are most affected by their home environment, which is where many of their problems usually begin.

Children over the age of 14 are rarely separated from their parents, no matter how bad the situation (may be) at home, so, for example, after treatment in a psychiatric clinic or a closed children's institution, they are often sent back to the environment where their trauma began. It's like trying to put out a fire by hiding the smoke.

Young people between the ages of 14 and 18 are no longer just children, but they are (also) far from being adults. Unresolved mental health problems at this age do not simply fix themselves and can affect people's future lives.

We have many young people who should still have a healthy life ahead of them, but are left alone. Mental health is severely underfunded in Estonia and the mental health crisis has been talked about for years.

At the same time, the state is prepared to pay family allowances for 'children' up to the age of 24, aimed, for example, at supporting families even when their child is studying at university. This seemingly noble, but essentially questionable decision begs the question: why is the state investing in prolonging childhood at a time when these young people are facing a crisis of survival?

Why put the responsibility for the adult 'child' on the family and not support these young people directly? Then, perhaps if they had the money to see a psychiatrist, a young person really could make it to university alive, instead of waiting nine months for an appointment.

In Estonia, the hot topic is still ageing and artificially increasing the birth rate through (the provision of) various subsidies. However, it is also important to think about children being able to grow up in a safe environment and receive support, even when their parents or carers are unable to provide it.

"If the state is so active in encouraging childbirth, the only sensible thing to do is to focus on how to make a child's life worth living."

Alongside family benefits, there could also be an emphasis on targeted mental health support. It is important that the children who are born, live. This is a harsh truth, but unfortunately it is our reality. With childbirth comes responsibility, and when the state is so active in encouraging it, the only sensible thing to do is to focus on how to make the child's life worth living. It is not worth giving birth to a child in a society where it will be left to drown, so to speak, later in life.

Beyond the chilling statistics and death notices, these premature deaths are our friends, children, acquaintances, classmates and siblings. These are people who have been abandoned, who have been let down by the Estonian mental health system and the Estonian state. Suicide is a consequence, not an isolated phenomenon.

It is estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of all minors in Estonia suffer from depression and other mental illnesses, that's between 20,000 and 40,000 children and teenagers. In 2020, Estonia ranked second in Europe in terms of child and youth suicides. These children and adolescents will not grow into healthy adults overnight. Trauma, depression, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses do not go away by themselves. It's important to be there for each other, but sometimes a supportive shoulder from a friend is not enough and skilled mental health professionals are needed.

The problems in healthcare are not limited to young people being left unassisted, but also affect mental health professionals. There are only a handful of state-funded child and adolescent psychiatrists in Estonia and their workload is too heavy. There is a demand for mental health professionals outweighs the supply, even when it comes to (support for) adults. Overburdening, especially in this area, ultimately leads mental health professionals to burn out or move into the private sector. So, from several perspectives, the system is flawed, and support for psychiatrists and psychologists in Estonia must not be disregarded.

I have been a depressed and suicidal young person. I can now say that I had the fortune to grow into the young, healthy adult I am today because I got help. I found a wonderful psychologist several years ago, after (being on) a nine-month waiting list.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many situations that didn't work out so well. A young girl who, after a stay in a psychiatric hospital, was sent home to her violent, addict parent. A suicidal young person sent away following an urgent admission to a psychiatric hospital because there were no places available. Another young person, who was unable to wait (the required) six months in a queue to see a free psychiatrist. A girl who has been in hospital for the last five years due to (repeated) suicide attempts, and who is sent back home again and again to the same environment that causes these problems. A seemingly successful woman in her 20s, whose most readily available remedy is addictive substances.

There are many examples, and they are not just mine, or those of my friends and acquaintances, but of all of us. Estonia, please do better, we don't want to lose any more loved ones.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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