Most higher education students fare well, coping with their studies and in their private lives. However, an increasing number of students are also seeking treatment for mental health problems.
The Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS) conducts a survey on higher education students’ health at four-year intervals. The survey conducted in 2016 revealed that some 30% of students are experiencing or have experienced mental health symptoms, such as exhaustion, overstrain and stress, while 4% suffer from anxiety and 7% from depression.
These figures exceed those of all previous surveys.
“The statistical findings are directly observable at the health centre: our patient numbers have grown,” says Marja-Leena Meronen, chief psychologist of the Helsinki and Espoo units of FSHS. Meronen has worked at FSHS for 16 years.
As for the reason for the increase in the number of students seeking medical care, she is uncertain.
“There is varying data on whether mental health problems have become increasingly prevalent or whether it has just become easier to seek help. Of course, it may be down to both.”
What is positive is that students are asking for help. FSHS and the Student Union of the University of Helsinki have long worked to prevent university students from considering psychological problems a taboo. The Kaikki hyvin? (“Are you okay?”) campaign to be held in November and December is part of this effort.
Graduation, loneliness and money problems weigh on the mind
“Students’ mental health problems seem to have increased over time ever since study grants were eroded by inflation, the number of grant months was restricted and degree completion times became stricter,” says Sofia Lindqvist, a specialist at the Student Union of the University of Helsinki.
Lindqvist is in charge of matters related to health, housing and the city, contributing, among other things, to the development of FSHS services.
“I began my studies in 1998, and now study grants are again at the same level as when I was a student, while rents and the standard of living have kept on rising,” Lindqvist notes.
According to Meronen, finances may be a factor in making students feel overwhelmed. Other contributing factors are age, developmental stage, the stage of studies and personal relationships. Many potentially stressful life changes are associated with beginning and ending studies.
“Students’ psychological wellbeing may also be negatively affected by the state of the world. Young adults have little confidence in finding their way in the world after completing their studies,” says Meronen.
FSHS helps students cope
FSHS provides treatment for university students when their health impedes the progress of their studies. General health services tackle sleep disorders and other less serious problems, while issues that require long-term therapy are dealt with by mental health services.
“The majority of students are able and have the courage to seek help, but they don’t always do so in good time,” says Lindqvist.
For some, accessing mental health services has come to a halt because the initial assessment is conducted over the phone. After all, not everyone is in a state where they feel able to or can get themselves to make the call. Based on the initial assessment, a nurse will refer students to either mental or general health care services. From time to time, students may be on-referred, for example, for psychotherapy subsidised by Kela, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland.
“FSHS is doing a good job, but the services remain rather limited,” Lindqvist says.
For instance, FSHS does not provide long-term psychotherapy or emergency care. Part of the costs of the psychotherapy subsidised by Kela must be covered by the students themselves.
“That eliminates some of the prospective patients,” Lindqvist adds.
Donations support therapy aimed for students
The funds of the University of Helsinki include the Valo fund, which grants financial aid annually to support the provision of psychotherapy to students. With the help of Valo grants, students have so far been able to attend more than 10,000 therapy sessions. The recipients of the funding are chosen by FSHS.
Valo is the only fund that supports psychological treatments for students, but the Student Union of the University of Helsinki also promotes the wellbeing of its members in other ways, including lobbying politicians.
“The union is striving for free mental health services for everyone under 29 years of age, campaigning for an open debate on mental health problems,” Lindqvist explains.