Mental health of young people a topic of discussion in all of Europe – youth workers updated their competence in Helsinki

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People working with young people are facing a massive workload in mental health after the pandemic. Ways of tackling it were sought in the Mental Health in Youth Work training held in Helsinki. We interviewed three of the participants, each of whom provides their own, important point of view to the topic.
People sit in a circle in a seminar. In the middle, a person talks about promoting mental health. In the background, a power point show with a title "Gutsy Go".
Media pedagogue Pedram Aflatuni familiarised the participants with Gutsy Go’s bold acts for peace.

“I like the idea that mental wellbeing is considered a resource that can be developed. We need to be able to support young people’s resilience, the ability to cope despite difficulties,” says Árpád Bárnai, who works with young people in challenging life situations.

Bárnai, who is Hungarian, and 32 other European youth workers convened in the international Mental Health in Youth Work training course organised in Helsinki just before Christmas. The training was aimed at providing information and tools for strengthening the mental wellbeing of young people to those who work with them.

In an important role in a small municipality

From the point of view of the wellbeing of young people, a youth worker may have a more central role than many of us would think. Although the resources are few, youth workers often have more leeway to emphasise matters they find important than, for example, teachers.

“I consider myself a very central figure. Alongside teachers, I am the only person who has direct contact with young people every day. Strengthening the mental wellbeing of young people is an extremely important goal for me,” explains Chris Winfield, youth worker at the municipality of Beiarn.

The setup in Beiarn in the north of Norway is familiar to many who live in a provincial environment: the distances are long and for many young people, school is the only place where they can meet people of their own age. According to a national survey, the wellbeing of young people in Beiarn is clearly lower than average in Norway: there is too much bullying and loneliness, too little happiness and sense of community.

“In matters related to mental health, the most difficult thing is to create a connection and break a certain kind of hard wall – opening up about such a personal matter as mental health,” Winfield explains with a sigh.

He says that when he came across the Mental Health in Youth Work training he thought it was “just what he needed”. He applied for the training to be able to better identify mental health challenges and to get tools, knowledge of methods and ideas.

Not everything can be repaired, but resilience can be strengthened

Árpád Bárnai stresses that, since we cannot remove all the difficulties in young people's life, we should focus on strengthening their resilience. Bárnai’s employer Élményakadémia works in cooperation with parties such as child welfare, so the life situations of the young people participating in the activities are invariably very challenging.

“Supporting mental wellbeing does not necessarily sound like serious work in the same way as, say, treating diagnosed depression, and there is no clear place for such work in the structures of society,” Bárnai regrets.

However, there is a huge need for everyday activities that support positive mental health. Bárnai participated in the training because he wanted to learn more about mental wellbeing and strengthening resilience. In his work, he also trains others who work with young people and reflect on the same things.

What does resilience, a word frequently used by Bárnai, actually mean? Is it the same as Finnish “sisu”, which means persistence and perseverance?

“Building resilience includes acknowledging difficulties, open discussion and empathy. However, we do not keep mulling over the problems forever. Instead, we also look at what is good in life and how the existing good things can be strengthened and benefitted from. With young people who live in very vulnerable situations, it is important to know how to support their transition from being a victim to becoming a survivor,” Bárnai says.

Bárnai radiates experience and a calm presence. He says that, in addition to meeting people, it has been uplifting to see how Finland and other countries do such great things with young people. In his opinion, what is impressive in Finland's work is the uniform foundation on which the work supporting mental wellbeing is based on.

“The message is strong and you invest in this work seriously. It is not vague and idealistic, but concrete acts,” Bárnai praises.

The Mental Health in Youth Work training and the entire more extensive project by the same name are implemented in cooperation with expert organisations of the field. Finnish expertise is represented by MIELI Mental Health Finland, Youth Mental Health Association Yeesi, Sosped Foundation and EHYT Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention.

Look after yourself too

Carmen Graff, who works at Jugendhaus Wooltz in Luxembourg, is worried about the coping of those working in the field as well as the wellbeing of young people.

“At the youth club, we have noticed the negative impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of young people and have talked a great deal about what we can do about it. At the same time, we have become concerned about our own wellbeing.

Graff refers to the discussions they have had on the training course, which have revealed that youth workers and social workers tend to demand too much from themselves.

“It is natural to want to do your best and feel inadequate when you cannot help everyone,” Graff says, huffing.

Having heard about these reflections, the lecturer instructing Graff in her studies in social pedagogy alongside work ended up suggesting that Graff focus on wellbeing at work in her final project.

“At first, the topic seemed unimportant, but I realised very soon that the wellbeing of the work community is a precondition for us to be able to support young people. Today’s society is terribly perfectionist. People should be good at everything they do and keep on striving for better and better to be appreciated. It would be a good idea to occasionally take a step back, distance ourselves and think about what is the worst that can happen if we leave something undone,” Graff reflects.

She says she wants to learn to identify her own role as a youth worker and set limits to it. If a youth worker cannot operate on a fractured limb, they also cannot mend a broken mind. You do not have to be able to solve all problems yourself, but guide the young person to the right professionals within the service system.

Home with pockets full of learning

Programme Adviser Paavo Pyykkönen, who is responsible for coordinating the Mental Health in Youth Work project, is satisfied with the implementation of the training and the feedback received:

“One hundred per cent of the participants said they were returning to work having learnt something new,” Pyykkönen says.

The message is confirmed by Graff, Bárnai and Winfield: all of them learnt something concrete to take home from the training. Out of these three people, Winfield is the most enthusiastic about the Gutsy Go operating model:

“I am madly inspired by it! The presentation of Gutsy Go radiated energy and a positive way of doing things. When young people’s activities are linked to the rest of the community, their value is highlighted. We are a small municipality with a lot of older people. Similar activities could benefit our community in so many ways!”

Pyykkönen, who is responsible for the activities, says that the project will continue with ID Talks online events in mid-February. The next event that will bring together actors in the field of youth will be organised on the second week of May. The event searches will open in the European Training Calendar, to which you can find a link at the end of this page.

All events related to mental health work are also published on the project website, where you can see them at one glance. Because the project is still in its early stages, there are not many events. They will be updated in the future.


Author: Hilma Ruokolainen