We must learn to take care of our mental health before times get tough

Kadri Haljas is a mental health innovator and the founder and CEO of Triumf Health, which was recently awarded the World Summit Award for their Triufland Saga mental health game for children. We talked to Kadri, who has a doctoral degree in psychology, about the importance of taking care of one’s mental health during critical times, how technology can help scale mental health care and more.

This interview was written by Sanne Taveter, a member of the sTARTUp Day communications and marketing team.

What can employers do to support their employees' mental health and prevent burnout?

The first thing we can do is talk about these topics and not stigmatize mental health. As long as we're ashamed and cover up our mental health issues, it is extremely difficult to support mental health in any way.

For example, with regard to sick leave, we should dare to admit that we are not doing well mentally. It should be normal that if you are suffering mentally, you talk about it the same way as if you break your leg. You are not ashamed of that, after all. So why do we have to be ashamed of what is happening inside us? We tend to be good at putting up a brave face and lying to ourselves and others that everything is OK, but it's time we stopped it.

Can you give some examples of Estonian companies that are supporting their employees’ mental health?

Estonia is a startup country, and the startup world tends to be somewhat chaotic. Combine this with its speed, and you get the perfect recipe for mental problems. That is why our startups are also leaders in supporting mental health. After all, employers want their employees to be productive. You may be the smartest person in the room, but if you are unable to contribute, the problem needs to be addressed. Your boss can't just insist that you do more work when you are not capable of it.

For instance, Pipedrive has an in-house psychologist the staff can also consult to prevent problems, not just when burned out. But there are more examples. I know that Confido and other service providers offer mental health services as part of the health package for companies. Many companies use these services and have made virtual visits to mental health experts possible so that people can use mental health services for free.

Yet the main problem is that even if these services are available, we are ashamed and do not want to use them, as I said earlier. We only use them as a last resort.

We still haven't made people understand that dealing with mental health should be the same as exercising – it could be a daily routine.

In short, it will take time. We need to use these services and not be ashamed of these possibilities.

How can leaders take care of their mental health during tough economic times like these?

When times get tough, people try to cut costs wherever they can. But the very last place to cut down on is people's well-being. If we take away the services for dealing with one's mental health, eventually, there will be no people on the team who are able to contribute. There's a lot of work that needs to be done which will take a toll on mental health. So my main message is: cut down on other services, but not mental health support. It is needed the most during critical times.

The same applies to leaders – none of us is a robot. You have to take care of your mental health and set an example for your employees. Things won't get better by chance. If you ignore problems all the time, it will inevitably eventually lead to burnout or you’ll face other serious consequences.

Which activities should one do to prevent burnout?

I've held training sessions and workshops on burnout for startup founders and employees, but it's actually impossible to understand what it's about, having never experienced it first-hand. In theory, everything works beautifully, and we talk about it. But what it means is difficult to grasp, and we cannot prevent burnout to a large extent without shifting our mindset and focusing on building skills.

We need to teach skills that allow people to cope mentally with difficult situations. A clinical psychologist or psychiatrist should be at the top of the pyramid – if we can't hold it together anymore, we turn to them. But what can we do before that? We cannot simply wait for six months or a year or maybe never go to a therapist because it's so expensive.

We must learn to be our own therapists and find a way to take care of ourselves mentally.

So that when it's no longer smooth sailing and things get hard, we know what to do in such a situation and don't fall into a black hole. So everyone needs to find their way to prevent burnout. And everyone will have their own way.

How could technology support mental health? What solutions have startups already come up with?

Technology allows us to reach more people, to scale mental health care. We train specialists, but we'll never have a psychologist for each person to help them through life. Unfortunately, 99% of the time, we are alone with our problems and, therefore, must find ways to deal with them. Technology makes it possible to focus on our mental health.

In Estonia and in the Estonian language, we still have very little choice. However, as I advise many mental health innovation companies around the world, I can say that there are very interesting solutions coming.

Our company Triumf Health deals with children because more than half of mental health disorders develop before the age of 14. If we fail to deal with kids, mental health issues will negatively affect their coping through life. The biggest healthcare burden is mental health problems. We must engage in prevention when these problems have not yet developed. But once they have, different methods can be used for treatment.

What prompted you to start Triumf Health?

I worked as a clinical child psychologist in a psychiatric clinic, then went to do a Ph.D. in Finland. However, it quickly became clear to me that I didn't just want to be a researcher. I missed clinical work where you see progress – what methodologies work, how children develop, and what helps them. And because I missed it so much but couldn't practice in Finland, I started looking into tech.

Seven years ago, I started attending health tech conferences – there are several international ones in Finland. I saw a lot of different solutions based on monitoring: you have to write down in your journal how you feel or behave or what triggers you. It works well with adults because that way, people learn to know themselves better. However, children want to be rewarded for every step. You have to give them a carrot for every development they make because no child would seek or use an app to reduce self-development or anxiety. They just want to be kids.

That's when I started Triumf Health because there just weren't any genuinely cool solutions in the mental health field back then; in fact, there still aren't. Recently, our mobile game was selected as the world's best digital solution in the mental wellness and health category at the World Summit Awards.

We bring mental health support to children through a play context because, as I said earlier, kids don't bother to take care of their mental health. They just want to be normal.

They don't want to be unhappy or fail at school. They get to know themselves better through the game without fully understanding how it happens. They can experience something and gain something from the process. That way, we can make dealing with mental health appealing to children.

How can one help a close person who is struggling mentally?

Unfortunately, we do not have enough educational materials in Estonia on how to help a person who has a mental health problem. Also, it is difficult for someone who has not experienced it first-hand to help a struggling person. It may also happen that close ones think I am just lazy and do not bother to do anything, even though I have a much bigger and more severe problem. That I am unable to make a mental effort, and this affects my whole life.

Recently, significant progress has been achieved by the organization Peaasi, which provides mental health training. Their goal is to train at least 10% of the Estonian population to provide mental health first aid. That is, you notice when a close person is struggling and know how to listen, don't make judgments, but try to be an active, supportive listener so that the person feels someone cares. Certainly, one must not criticize a person in such a fragile state but be as supportive and positive as possible.

I've been involved in the mental health field for the past 15 years, and at first, no one cared about mental health and how to maintain it. However, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, people finally began to realize the importance of mental health and look for different ways to care for it. We are moving in the right direction in society as long as we do not ignore and are not ashamed of mental health issues and don't say that we are fine when, in fact, we are not.

If someone decides right now that they want to take better care of their mental health, what is one thing they could do right away?  

Indeed, you should address your mental health before problems arise. I would again highlight the website peaasi.ee, which recently published a mental health vitamins campaign that explains what activities a person can do to maintain their mental health. The basics, of course, are a healthy diet, adequate exercise, supportive relationships, etc. In addition, I would recommend reflecting about what you are grateful for and writing it down every morning. We have a lot to be grateful for, but often we just forget it. Most things around us tend to be negative (for example, the news is almost always about negative events), and to balance this; we must instill positivity into ourselves by force. One way to do this is to keep a gratitude diary. In addition, we could enjoy the little things, because they actually mean a lot!

What book on mental health would you recommend?

I recommend "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk.

Listen to Kadri's talk "The Most Profitable Investment You'll Ever Make" at sTARTUp Day 2022 here.

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