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Can cafés of influence and democracy heroes make us feel better?

Can cafés of influence and democracy heroes make us feel better?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

One in five children and young people are struggling mentally. And the problems have been on the increase in all of the Nordic countries in recent years. That is the backdrop for a Nordic summit on mental health in Oslo.

“The increase in mental health problems among young people is one of the greatest public health challenges in the Nordic countries,” said Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg as she opened the summit.  

The summit host, Norwegian Minister of Health Bent Høie, did not wish to separate mental and physical health too much.

“There is a stronger link than we think. We know that being active means a lot both for our mental and physical health. If we cannot sleep, it affects both our psyche and physiology, and being able to spend time with other people means a lot for both body and soul.”

 Photo: Björn Lindahl

Norway’s Minister of Health and Care Services, Bent Høie

“Being lonely is as damaging as smoking 12 cigarettes a day,” claimed Bent Høie.

At the same time he wants to keep the different age groups apart:

“Youths represent a separate age group. They are not older children, nor young adults, but an entirely separate age group,” he pointed out.

Herein lies the challenge for politicians who want to improve the mental health of a country.  Creating a good life is dependent on so many things: family, school, leisure time and work. At the same time we have created a system which divides life into stages. Nursery, elementary school, secondary and upper secondary education and university – these are all institutions run by separate groups of people who just about have time to get to know a child or a youth before it is time for them to be hurried along in the system. And this is only the educational system. 

A need for better cooperation

The Nordic summit’s ambition is to catch those struggling with psychological issues at an earlier stage. To do that, there is a need for better cooperation between the education and health sectors as well as between the labour and welfare sectors. 

“During its Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Norway has initiated a three year long project. It will share experiences and knowledge between the Nordic countries, including the best ways for different administration levels and sectors to work together,” said Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

As always, the Nordic cooperation is about highlighting good projects and to learn from each other. 

“But it would also be good if we could learn from each other’s mistakes,” pointed out Jari Partanen, State Secretary at the Finnish Ministry of Family Affairs and Social Services.

He highlighted a number to illustrate the large differences when it comes to mental health:

“49 percent of all early retirements in Finland are due to psychological problems.

The need to be seen

A common thread running through the summit was the human need to be seen and to make oneself heard.

 Photo: Björn Lindahl

Four of the Nordic youths who participated at the conference: Rosa Maria Boasdottír, Iceland; Jenna Wahlstén, Finland; Gabriel Malmer, Sweden and Emilie Agergaard, Denmark.

Meanwhile, several of the participating youths pointed out that it is not enough that someone listens to what they have to say, if they are not also given the chance to influence decisions which affect themselves. 

“Sometimes it seems like they think all it takes is to include a young person. But bad representation can be worse than no representation at all,” says Karoline Nylander from Norway.

Voting age 16?

If you really want to listen to what youths have to say, perhaps it would be a good idea lower the voting age to 16?

Minister of Health Bent Høie passes the question to Oliwer Karlsson, project leader for ALLA UNGA (‘All Youths’) in Lund municipality in Sweden.

“That is a good idea, but it is also important to look at why young people who do have the vote don’t use it,” said Oliwer Karlsson.

Photo: Björn Lindahl

He presented ALLA UNGA, one of several projects showcased that day. Its aim has been to increase the influence and participation also among young people with ‘intellectual function variation’.

“This is a term we use because we don’t want to support the view that people are either normal or abnormal,” says Oliver Karlsson.

“All it is is that someone with an intellectual function variation has other tools in their toolbox than those who don’t have this.”

I Sweden there are special schools for pupils who for instance struggle to receive, process and pass on information.

Not everyone found the Youth parliament

Lund municipality’s work with young people disclosed that these students were not represented in the Youth parliament organised by the municipality a couple of times each term, where youths could meet to discuss issues which were important to them, as well as meeting decision makers and other key people from the municipality. 

Meanwhile, studies done by the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) show youths with disabilities are more pessimistic about the future. 7.7 percent among the group with disabilities are very pessimistic compared to 1.7 percent among other youths. A full 20 percent felt they had too much leisure time (compared to 9.5 percent) and 34 percent felt they had no influence (compared to 25 percent of other youths).

There have been a range of different initiatives with fanciful names like Cafés of influence and Democracy heroes. The first one is a variation on the Youth parliament, but only for students in special schools. The background was that the target group clearly expressed that they wanted more to do with their leisure time, while their influence was limited. Teachers said their students enjoyed cafés, so the two activities were linked. 

A lack of role models

Democracy heroes is addressing the fact that there is often a lack of role models for young people in special schools. The Democracy heroes are young adults who have attended special schools themselves. Their main task is to make themselves available at the Cafés of influence so that everyone who visits can feel welcome.

The three main activities at the cafés are to snack, attend workshops and graphic facilitation. The latter is a method were thoughts and ideas are written down to explain concepts. Since many among the target group have limited reading and writing skills, and some also struggle verbally, images become another way of communicating. 

It is a method which was used during the entire summit to explain the debate on mental health, where Minister of Health Bent Høie dared to present a definition:

“Mental health is to master your own life."

Esther Buchmann, photo: Björn Lindahl

Esther Buchmann drawing and writing about the conference

Graphic facilitation

is a method to visualise what is being debated at a conference or in a meeting. Above, Amanda Petterson is wielding the felt-tip pens during the presentation of the ALLA UNGA project at Lund municipality in Sweden. In the background is Oliver Karlsson.

Few statistics

Apart from the WHO study ”Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children” there are few or no studies which can be used to carry out comparative analysis of young people’s mental health in the Nordic countries. At the summit on young people’s mental health, Pernille Due from Denmark’s National Institute of Public Health presented statistics over how satisfied youths are with their own lives. According to that, life satisfaction has fallen in all the Nordic countries except Greenland and Norway. The greatest drop was seen in Sweden.


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