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Iceland: Work is better than therapy for vulnerable youth

Iceland: Work is better than therapy for vulnerable youth

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason, photo: VIRK

“It pays to invest in people, and we must never give up on our young people,” says Vigdís Jónsdóttir, the CEO of the job rehabilitation centre VIRK in Iceland. Last year, VIRK was one of the signatories to a memorandum of understanding involving a large increase in support for young people in vulnerable situations.

The other signatories were the Ministry of Labour, the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise and the Directorate of Labour. A press release at the time said the aim was to prevent young people with mental health issues from being forced out of the labour market. 

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, the Minister of the Labour Market, has for a long time wanted to improve the opportunities for that group of people, and this is one of the ways of doing it. The government earmarked more than 450 million Icelandic kroner (€3m) over three years for the project.

Every signatory of the memorandum plays their part. The Directorate of Labour hires people to help the young people find jobs. The Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise makes sure the jobs are available and VIRK helps workers with mental health issues find the right job and adapt to the job environment.

Must get young people started

The CEO of VIRK, Vigdís Jónsdóttir, says there have always been worries about young people with mental health issues isolating themselves from the labour market.

“Young people are the future and if we don’t get them started we are in a very difficult situation. We have a lot to gain. If a 20-year-old individual doesn’t work it’s a big blow for society because they have a lot of years left.” 

They might have various reasons for not accessing the labour market.

“Drug abuse can be a factor. It is much more common now than before and it can destroy the lives of young people. We also see a lot of research detailing increased discomfort among young people. There is more depression and anxiety than before, which has led to increased medication.” 

She adds that in many cases people become isolated when spending a lot of time on their mobiles and computers, playing video games for example. 

“And they are also affected by social media, which can cause people to feel bad.” 

Jónsdóttir also points out that drug abuse can be a consequence of people having depression or anxiety and therefore struggling socially.

Work makes people feel better

The programme is based on a method known as Individual Placement Support (IPS).

“This has been used around the world and has given the best results, especially for young people with mental health issues. It does not focus on solving that problem, only on finding the right job. Because as soon as they start working, they feel better,” Jónsdóttir says.

And in some cases, the labour market needs to adapt to the individual. 

“A good example is people on the autism spectrum, something which we see more of these days. Often there is nothing wrong with these people, but the society is not ready for them.”

In short, when working with IPS, the employment specialists talk to the individuals and hear what kind of job they would like. This is important because it is no good for them to work with something that is of no interest to them. So the employment specialists find jobs based on the young person’s wishes. 

“It can be difficult for them to search for jobs and find them, but we can do it. We are cooperating with over 1,500 companies and 350 have a deal with us about being involved. We use these connections. Whether someone wants to work in a theatre or a car repair shop, we can talk to businesses we work with and ask them if they have room, even if it’s only part-time. 

“For us, it is really important that these people are not out of touch with the labour market for too long. Their needs must be met and they should have support at work. We don’t just let them go as soon as they start working because there can always be a backlash.

"They might not realise how workplaces work because they’re not used to them. So they need some guidance sometimes, especially if they have been inactive for a long time and have social difficulties.” 

Not always best to wrap them in cotton wool

That support can also be a help to the employer.

“Sometimes these individuals are dealing with lifelong mental health challenges. That can create insecurity among employers and coworkers. So the employment specialist can explain the situation to everyone. 

“We have so many great success stories involving these people. Many who we thought wouldn’t have a chance of more than a small part-time job all of a sudden are working full time and love it. But sometimes things don't work out. It’s just how it is.”

Jónsdóttir believes that one of the reasons for Iceland to introduce this special measure are the good results obtained by similar programmes in other Nordic countries. 

”It is not always best to wrap these kids in cotton wool and put them through all kinds of treatment for too long. You also have to teach them to be a part of society with the challenges they have.

"Then, sometimes, their confidence grows and they feel that they can take part in this. This is the biggest change in job rehabilitation – to increase the connection with the job sooner, instead of starting with 18 months of psychological therapy. That’s what IPS does.”

Jónsdóttir says that their goal is to give these young people the service they need as quickly as possible. 

“We see that IPS has huge effects on our job rehabilitation programme, both for younger and older people. To connect individuals with the labour market straight away really does a lot. 

“We have to teach them to live with their difficulties and give them tools that make them able to work despite them. For example, we teach them how to maintain close contact with work, because that can be the most important contact they have.”

VIRK’s involvement has been a big success. Normally, 2,500 people use their services at any given time and most of them are not able to work when they join. 80 per cent of the ones who go through their programme end up finding jobs.  

Jónsdóttir says this has contributed to fewer people on disability benefits, also among young people.

Vigdís Jónsdóttir

is the CEO of the job rehabilitation centre VIRK in Iceland.


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