A team of volunteers have published a petition on the website change.org, addressed to Finland’s Ministry of Health. At the same time, they launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #IamSuomiToo.

The petition and the campaign hope to raise awareness of what they see as unequitable access to mental health care, which particularly affects foreign residents in Finland.

In a press release, the volunteers point out that Finland has “the highest incidence of mental disorders in Europe, with one in every five people experiencing mental problems at some point in their life.” However, the text continues, “a recent study by the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare (THL) highlighted how people of foreign background face higher risks for mental issues while at the same time accessing appropriate services much less than natives.”

The main reasons cited for this lack of access are language and cultural barriers, as well as a “lack of diversity amongst mental health care professionals, stringent timings for crisis hotlines, long queueing times and expensive private treatment.”

The volunteers behind the campaign and the petition “wish to highlight how modern Finnish society is rich in diversity. This should reflect in the services provided to the population, especially the critical ones such as mental health care.” That is why they ask the Ministry of Health to “grant equitable access to mental health care in Finland for everyone.”

We spoke with the campaign’s spokesperson, Paola Elefante, and asked her how the campaign came about and what specific measures they hope the ministry would take in addressing this concern.

“We are just a group of volunteers, not an organization,” she pointed out in the beginning. “This is completely grassroots.”

The campaign started quite spontaneously, she went on to say. “It all started from an online conversation. There has been a lot of talk in a Facebook group of mothers about mental health, and the loneliness associated with being a foreigner in this country, and we discussed post-natal depression. So it started from a sort of a restricted angle, in a sense. But many of us, including myself, had a personal history of facing the system and not finding help. And eventually it came up that the problem was probably even bigger and went beyond just the experiences of mothers.”

Once Elefante came up with the idea of starting a petition, she was met with a positive response, with lots of people from different backgrounds engaging in the project, helping with drafts, or providing data.

With regard to concrete changes they would like to see in the mental health care services, Elefante explained that “our goal is not to give solutions.” “We want to raise awareness and we want to show that there is a gap and a need. We are not experts; we are just normal people working in different fields.” In the course of preparing this petition, however, the group did consult several experts, including mental health professionals, psychotherapists and, for example, people from THL and Mieli.

“What we would hope for,” she continued, “is that the government acknowledged the issue, which they haven’t so far, and that they make a committment to really address it. The petition has three quite concrete requests. For example, that the public service providers increase visibility of information; at the moment, the information is not available in languages other than Finnish and Swedish. But if you want to reach certain communities, there has to be an inclusive design; you have to deliver the information in a way that the people can receive it.”

“When it comes to actual services, there is clearly a big issue with lack of diversity among mental health professionals, so that’s another concrete thing we hope will change. This taps into the language barrier, of course; I myself have really struggled to find an English-speaking therapist that practices in the public sector. It’s possible to find one in the private sector, which costs a lot of money, but we need to make sure the public sector has the capability. One of the issues there, for instance, is that Valvira, the institution which licences practicing psychotherapists in Finland, almost never grants these licences to foreign-trained therapists. So what you end up with is a whole sector that functions with only Finnish speakers, and they lack language diversity, but also cultural sensitivity. Consequently, for example, people of color struggle to get an adequate response from a Finnish therapist.”

Elefante concluded on a positive note, however, pointing out that “we think that there is already a series of untapped resources on the territory, namely a lot of foreign-trained psychotherapists who would be more than happy to practice in the Finnish sector, but are not enabled to.”

If you want to support the volunteers’ cause, you can sign the petition at http://chng.it/CGDTzZrtR6.