Sandra Liiv, project manager of mental health NGO Peaasi.ee, says that Estonian people have begun to talk more and more about their mental health problems in public.
In 2023, Peaasi.ee launched a series of regular "mental health cafés," offering people in need the chance to talk to someone who has undergone mental health first aid training. Peaasi.ee project manager Sandra Liiv explained that the training has given mental health café volunteers the theoretical and practical knowledge on how to recognize when someone around them is experiencing mental health difficulties and how best to approach them.
Last year, 45 mental health cafés were held in locations throughout Estonia. "We have agreed that on the last Saturday of every month, there will now be volunteers at cafés in Tartu, Viljandi, Pärnu, Kuressaare and Tallinn, who are usually present for the entire time the café is open. They sit alone at a table, wearing a white T-shirt with the words 'I am there' ('Olen olemas') on it, and if anyone feels like sharing their concerns or thoughts on that day, or asking for advice on where else to turn, they can do so," explained Liiv.
According to Liiv, Estonians are becoming more confident when it comes to talking about their mental health concerns, with more than 230 people visiting mental health cafés last year. "It's been a bit of a surprise to us that the café format has been so well received," Liiv said.
Liiv believes that one of the main benefits of the cafés is being able to talk to a complete stranger. "Maybe it's a lot easier to go if I don't know the person, I don't have to see them ever again, and so I can just go and ask them for advice, I don't even have to know them by name," she said, adding that mental health cafés are not about providing therapy or counseling, but simply about talking to someone who listens and is there.
"These are people who can provide initial comfort in the form of supportive listening. It seems to me that that's what we're often lacking, someone to just listen to us. They have that kind of knowledge, of how to listen."
Liiv also believes that the gradual emergence in Estonian society of the courage to talk openly about mental health has contributed to the popularity of mental health cafés.
"That's part of the purpose for the cafés too - to bring mental health concerns out from under the carpet and out from behind the doors of professionals. We are creating a psychological culture that is supportive and caring, and showing that mental health can be talked about anywhere, anytime, and is not a taboo subject. In the same way that I might dare to say I have a headache today, I can also dare to say when I am having unpleasant thoughts," she said.
According to Liiv, the people who visit the mental health cafés are different. There are those who are talking to someone for the first time about their mental health difficulties, and there are also others, who have been seeing psychologists or psychiatrists for years but want the opportunity to talk to someone else. People of different ages and from different backgrounds have all come along to share their thoughts.
"People talk and ask for advice about depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress at work or school, and they also come in groups. They sit down at the table with their family for example, and share their biggest concerns with a volunteer," said Liiv.
Although mental health cafés have been established in several Estonian cities in the past year, the aim now is to expand them to other parts of the country. Liiv said that whether that happens also depends on how willing people in local communities are to support the scheme.
"We went to Saaremaa for instance because local people, who had completed mental health first aid training, contacted us and started running the café themselves," she explained.
Peaasi.ee's bigger mission is to train at least one percent of the Estonian population to become mental health first-aiders. "These people can be supportive and not just in the cafés, but it would also be great to have someone in the workforce who has gone through this training," Liiv said.
More information about Peaasi.ee and mental health cafés in Estonia is available here.
Editor: Michael Cole