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Camilla Stoltenberg: Nordics should cooperate to improve young people’s mental health

| Text: Marie Preisler

The Nordic countries should get together and create ambitious goals to improve young people’s psychological well-being, argues Camilla Stoltenberg, professor and Director-General of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Should the Nordic countries worry about young people’s poor mental health?

Yes, I think we should. Psychological ill health makes up a large part of young people’s disease burden. It leads to suffering for the individual and their close ones – and this can be a loss for society. At worst it is also a cause of death, as a result of suicide, drug abuse and injuries.

Are you worried yourself?

Yes, especially when I think about the consequences this can have over a person’s lifetime. 

Do you see young people's psychological problems as a threat to their chances of getting an education and to their future in the labour market?

Yes, we know that psychological problems represent a major cause of absence from upper secondary education, and a weakened chance of getting a higher education and joining the labour market. It is also the main cause of disability among young people.

What particular psychological issues are young people facing?

Anxiety and depression are the most common problems for both young women and men, but more young women are treated for depression. ADHD, autism and other developmental problems most often appear earlier on in childhood, and boys get these diagnosis more often than girls. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug abuse and eating disorders are most often first seen in younger people. Even though these conditions are less common than anxiety and depression, they might be more serious and last longer. 

It has always been a psychological challenge to be young and facing adult life – is being young today more taxing for people’s psyche than it was before?

I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question. Personally I doubt that it was easier before, rather the opposite, but today more people ask for help, get a diagnosis and treatment – both successful, neutral and failed treatment. We also see changes which can help improve mental health in the Nordic countries. Fewer young people say they use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. This is a good thing which can be decisive for their lives, not least in the long run. 

What is the most important thing for safeguarding young people’s mental health?

A good society is crucial, but we do not know enough about what element in that society is the most important one. We have reason to believe in certain things like: An environment where there is room for people to be different, which can be inclusive and supportive during difficult periods, and an environment where people can develop their skills and feel in control. But we need to create a better knowledge base, find out more about causes, about treatment and not least acquire more specific knowledge about how to prevent outbreaks of symptoms and illness, how we establish and execute good, preventative measures, and how we reduce the negative consequences of psychological symptoms and problems. There is a lot to be done here.

Should young people themselves change their habits and their self-image, or is it the responsibility of parents, schools or the Nordic societies to prevent mental problems among young people?

People of all ages want a good life. I don’t think this is about pulling yourself together. Young people themselves must contribute, but first and foremost as a group. The main responsibility rests with society, and if the Nordic countries can work together that’s great. 

The problem has been known for quite some time, yet still it has not become smaller. Could more have been done?

We could have done more by getting more and better knowledge sooner. It is natural to think of the educational system as an arena in which you promote children and young people’s mental health. In what way do nurseries and schools influence mental health? How can we adapt education to keep pupils in even if they develop a mental problem? We need to be more creative when applying measures and we need a more systematic approach to what we try out. There is knowledge around measures in schools like anti-bullying programmes, preventative and health promoting measures, but these must be developed further and be given a greater focus. 

Do you see a potential for Nordic cooperation here?

Yes, absolutely. I want to highlight how we, across the Nordics, can use knowledge to create ambitious goals for improved mental health for children and young people. We can use our registry and public health studies – like the Norwegian and Danish birth cohorts – to study this and maintain an overview over developmental traits. There is already much good cooperation, including studies on the effects and side effects of ADHD medication and anti depressants. We should also develop better systems for the exchange of knowledge about what works. All this is well suited for cooperation between the Nordic countries. 

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