Greeting by President Alar Karis at the opening of the meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health Coalition
Honoured ministers! Dear members of the coalition! Ladies and gentlemen!
We have an important task ahead of us. This may be the most important mission of our century, next only to defeating anti-democratic aggressors and averting the climate catastrophe. We have the duty of building societies whose prosperity and resilience relies on supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of people, instead of damaging them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has really been the wake-up call that made us notice where the societies are failing our people. Our awareness of and response to mental health issues has been one of them. Today, we can no longer ignore the extent and the cost of the mental health burden. This coalition is a good example of the valuable initiatives have been launched in response to the challenge. We are moving from debate to actions. Now, let us keep the momentum and design a coordinated response to mental health issues – on a local, regional and global level.
As the president of Estonia, I have made mental health of young people one of my key themes. I was shocked when I heard the statistics that between 2015 and 2020, the number of suicide attempts among young people doubled. The suicide rate of young people in Estonia is 2.5 [two and a half] times higher than the EU average.
Behind these statistics are stories. Real and sad stories of terrible losses. During my time in office, I have visited many schools and had numerous meetings with young people. And no matter where we start our conversation, we end up discussing mental health. I have heard those stories from principals, teachers and young people themselves. Everywhere, teachers are worried and overwhelmed, young people feel anxious, and mental health specialists admit the lack of capacity to support those who need help.
These are the results of many years of undone work, amplified by the plethora of ongoing crises. But there are encouraging signs of initiatives that aim to turn the tides. Estonia has a few things to share. For example, many of our schools and kindergartens use evidence-based programmes to reduce bullying. Socio-emotional skills are being integrated into curricula on all levels. Parenting programs help to break unproductive behaviour patterns that many of us still have.
Just yesterday, we had the first meeting of the governmental committee on prevention. Importantly, six cabinet ministers out of 15 are part of this panel that discusses interventions in many critical areas including mental health. Six ministers. This indicates that for us, mental health is not just a health issue. It is an education issue, a security issue, an economic issue. Every unit of the state shares the responsibility of being part of the response to mental health challenges. And we aim that every decision is made, considering its impacts on the wellbeing on people.
Especially in crisis situations, securing and supporting mental health and psycho-social wellbeing needs to be a guiding principle. It is part of the psychological defence of the country, making it more resistant to external and internal disruptions.
Prevention is the key. It is essential that young people today grow up knowing how to manage their feelings, recognise potential mental health problems and act to take care of themselves. We all need to be able to notice people in need of help and provide them with “mental health first aid”. As countries, we all also need to build strong and sustainable systems of professional help.
I have focused today on the mental health of young people because unnoticed and untreated problems during this age will only grow in their future life. However, other areas, reflected in the working group themes of this coalition are important too. An urgent challenge has been providing necessary psychosocial support to Ukrainian refugees. We are thankful for WHO and UN agencies for cooperation in this respect. Next to our full efforts to ending this aggression, we must make sure that we cope with the war trauma so it will not ruin the lives of millions of Europeans. There are already too many victims.
Ladies and gentlemen! The world will not return to normal – that is, to the time before the war and pandemic. Partly, because the old normal used to mean that mental health issues were swept under the carpet. The new normal is making psychosocial wellbeing a central principle in our societies.
Thank you for your attention!