Estonian students have been hit by a mental health crisis

Tallinn, Estonia, 27 August 2021

Members of the Estonian EUROSTUDENT team, Sandra Haugas and Kaupo Koppel, have published an article with a focus on students’ mental health in one of the biggest Estonian daily newspapers Eesti Päevaleht based on EUROSTUDENT VII results and. Following is the translation of their article.

The mental health of Estonian students has never been in such a critical state as it is today. EUROSTUDENT VII results revealed that when compared to the average of the 26 countries who participated in the survey, in Estonia there are almost twice as many students who say that they have a mental health problem.

In Estonia, 9% of students admitted having a mental health problem, while the average for all countries was only 5%. At the same time, when compared to the previous EUROSTUDENT VI survey three years ago, we can see an alarming threefold increase (from 3% to 9%) in the share of Estonian students who say that they have a mental health problem. In all countries students report having more mental health problems than before, but the increase in Estonia has been one of the fastest.

What explains the deteriorating mental health of Estonian students?

EUROSTUDENT methodology does not enable to give a definite answer whether the sharp increase can be explained with the actual rise in the incidence of mental health problems or because there has been an increase in students’ awareness of such issues. Presumably, both aspects play an important role.

The growth in awareness as one of the reasons behind the upsurge is supported by the fact that besides Estonia, the incidence of mental health problems has also risen sharply in other countries that have the historical heritage of the Soviet Union (likewise Estonia), such as Romania (increase three times) and Poland (increase six times).

It can be assumed that in Estonia and in other CEE countries, mental health as a topic and the related problems have not been widely acknowledged neither at the level of politics nor individuals. However, the situation is changing. In other words, Estonia, together with other post-communist CEE countries, has caught up with Western Europe in raising awareness of mental health problems, at least among students.

On the other hand, there is still room for improvement when talking about awareness-raising. While 9% of students in Estonia reported having a mental health problem, actually almost half of the students said that they have recently experienced specific conditions that might refer to mental health problems (e.g., frequent or constant worry about many things; loss of energy; fatigue). Roughly a third of students perceive often or constant feeling of tension or inability to relax, decreased ability to pay attention and concentrate, and feelings of sadness.

In other words, the study showed that Estonian students may actually have significantly more mental health problems than they reported.

Don't need or want support?

Students with mental health problems and with other impairments who feel at least partially limited in their studies or daily life due to their impairment were asked how they assess the support offered by the university, local authority and the state. Only one in seven students (14%) thinks that support is sufficient. With this indicator, Estonia is below the average of EUROSTUDENT VII countries (19%). One third (35%) of students with impairments in Estonia think that the support is not sufficient, which is similar to the average (37%).

However, Estonia differs from most other countries in this respect that quite a large proportion of students (33%) who feel limited due to their impairment(s) say that they do not want or need support. This indicator is significantly higher than the average (24%) and again places Estonia in a group dominated by post-communist countries - Lithuania and the Czech Republic, where such students make up 35% of the whole student population, and Poland, where they make up 46%. This indicates that students in Estonia and in other CEE countries are not used to dealing with their mental health problems, which in turn may be a consequence of insufficient awareness.

The actual incidence of mental health problems in Estonia is not clear. We can have a look on the surveys conducted by The National Institute for Health Development or the number of psychiatric appointments, but the latter primarily reflects the change in the availability of services, not a real need and the prevalence of psychiatric illnesses.

However, a significant increase in the diagnosis and perception of neurotic, stress-related or anxiety disorders can indeed be seen, both among the general population and among young people. Perceptions of such disorders are more frequently associated with poverty, unemployment or poor working conditions.

Perception of depression in different age groups is one and a half to two times more common among people whose income is below the relative poverty line. The EUROSTUDENT VII results also showed that mental health problems are more common among students with low income. Mental health problems have increased significantly over the last three years especially among students whose income depends mainly on state study grants (a sevenfold increase) compared to those whose income comes from parents or from working (up to threefold increase).

Although in general working alongside studying seems to have a rather good effect on students' mental health, the increase in the incidence of mental health problems has been as sharp among students who work intensively (at least 20 hours per week) as among non-working students. As the survey was conducted before the pandemic, the indicators of students’ mental health might now be even worse than those pointed out in this article.

Mental health policy

Mental health problems are both a consequence and a cause of inequality. The mental health crisis currently affecting the students is still gaining momentum. We do not want this to be passed on to a generation-wide crisis of mental health and inequality. A comprehensive mental health policy in the field of higher education needs to be developed to support students’ health. Currently there is no such policy in Estonia.

To support the health of students it is necessary to find out why exactly are students with impairments so dissatisfied with the support provided by the state, local authority and higher education institutions. All this must be taken into account in the further development of support systems and the development of a comprehensive mental health policy for higher education.

It is a pleasure to see that we have caught up with the welfare states of Western Europe and Scandinavia in acknowledging mental health issues among students. The ball is now in the hands of policy makers to take a qualitative step forward in enhancing both the mental health and well-being policies in higher education.