Daniel Coll: Let’s make Estonia happy again

Mental health issues are dominating the headlines now, with prominent names like Ed Sheeran and the younger British royals throwing their weight behind creating awareness; it’s time to take a proactive approach to tackling the problem – could innovative Estonia lead the way on this as it has in the world of technology?

The country that sang its way to freedom 30 years ago, with such optimism and pride, has succumbed to the plight of our developed and ever-connected world. Depression and other mental health issues now affect more people in the western world than ever before; here, in Estonia, the numbers are disturbing yet concurrent with our neighbours. What if we could initiate the turn of the tide and be at the forefront of a global movement for increased wellbeing and optimism?

A brave face

Estonia is an innovative and resourceful country, and its people are proud of their laid-back and agile – literally as well as in concept – approach to business. We are immensely proud of the startups that have conquered the world, companies that don’t even need to be mentioned by name. But there is a side to this complex land that is self-destructive, rooted in the pain and sorrow of years spent coping with tragedy.

Occupation hurts. It’s traumatic, it destroys families and lives, and it seeps into the soul of a nation with intent to destroy it from within. A friend and colleague of mine, the former managing editor of the Estonian Public Broadcasting news in English, Dario Cavegn, famously said, “Estonia is a nation suffering from collective post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” A claim that has been hailed by many as an accurate assessment of the mental state of the country following its violation by the Soviet regime.

A street in Tallinn. The image is illustrative/Carolina Sanchez.

The harsh reality

The extent to which Estonia’s past contributes to the statistics is difficult to measure, but the statistics themselves show a stark picture of the country’s mental health today, and more worryingly that of the young. The Global Burden of Diseases study (2013-2017) shows that approximately 35% of men in Estonia suffering from mental health issues are suffering from depression; that figure increases to approximately 67% for women.

Drilling down into the stats, we can see 13% of all lost healthy life years across the whole population has mental health issues as the cause. If we draw in the parameters to men between the ages of 15 and 49, that figure shoots up to 28% of all lost healthy life years. Frighteningly, 55% of these men will be suffering from depression, meaning that approximately 13% of all Estonian men aged 15 to 49 are suffering from depression – roughly one in every ten.

The real concern, and focus for future efforts, centres around the mental health of our children. According to the data of the Global Burden of Diseases study, one quarter of all health loss in children aged five to 14 in Estonia is a result of mental health disorders. For girls within this age range, just over half of all loss of health due to mental issues is down to depression.

The image is illustrative. Photo by Joonas Sild.

The future can be bright

A happy, healthy population is better equipped to drive the country forward. The disjoint between the slick PR image of e-Estonia (a digitalised country – editor) and the facts on the ground needs addressing but doesn’t have to be debilitating to our progress. An approach that is extremely effective with individuals wishing to change their lives for the better is the reprogramming of belief systems.

These are the blueprints that become hardwired into us and form the basis of how we deal with everyday situations. They are formed over time, from the experiences we have in each situation in life; they are shaped by our own reactions to events, by the opinions of others and by how we are left feeling about ourselves. When such a situation comes up again, they shape the way we approach it; whether we fear it and mess up, or whether we “smash it”.

Life coaches, who work with individuals to transform their lives, often start by getting an individual to explore why a certain situation or event has created limiting belief systems – when the blueprint is holding them back. In many cases, it is a result of a positive feedback loop, where a negative belief facilitates a negative experience, which, in turn, strengthens the negative belief (to simplify it somewhat).

Psychologists have found that breaking this loop can have a positive impact on a person’s overall mental state, and for those suffering from depression it can help. Of course, there are environmental and lifestyle factors at play (drug and alcohol abuse, all-work-no-play, poor diet, a lack of exercise and not enough sleep) but a bit of dedicated maintenance on the mind’s “hard drive” can go a long way in the fight against depression.

Call to action

In the wake of the World Mental Health Day 2019, we should be looking at positive steps to introduce a supportive environment for all, and especially for our kids. Waiting for a small issue to develop into a statistic worthy condition is a drain on the taxpayer as well as the individual. Estonia as an innovator should be thinking about ways in which to shape the conversation on solutions to the mental health problem within Europe, and possibly beyond.

There are initiatives around the country to support and help those with depression, excellent projects such as Meeste Garaaž (Men’s Garage), an NGO, in Tartu offer a laid back and friendly environment for men to meet, chat and support each other. Several resources for children and teens exist, mostly on referral from family doctors, but a more natural culture of openness to chat and discuss feelings is what the society really needs.

Members of Meeste Garaaž, an NGO, chilling out in an Estonian forest (Facebook).

Taking coaching into schools

The techniques used in life coaching are extremely effective in fostering a focused and goal-orientated approach to life, reframing any negative or limiting influences and approaching self-development from the ground up, with a focus on balance across all areas of a person’s life. One issue in a particular area of life can reduce overall happiness and contentment significantly, even in areas that as deemed to be stable – fix that and see dramatic all-round improvements.

At present, it’s the high earners and those with enough disposable income who benefit from coaching. We need to find a way as a society to introduce these valuable techniques to young people, so that they have the tools to deal with any negative thoughts or feelings that arise before they become an issue. Being young is hard these days.

Elavus, a self-development portal aimed at driven professionals wishing to improve their lives, is looking at ways in which they can contribute their knowledge on personal development to the Estonian education system for the benefit of young people. This may be in the form of teacher training, or in-school workshops on coaching techniques and how to integrate them into your daily life. Any support or ideas are very welcome.

Clearly, there is a way to go. However, the increase in awareness around mental health issues, both within the country and around the world, signals a positive step towards a world in which we can manage our mental wellbeing effectively, routinely and without shame.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Tallinn skyline in winter. Photo by Jaanus Janomägi. Images courtesy of Unsplash, except where stated.

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