Eila Ruuskanen-Himma: A work exchange month in New York - discussing the World Happiness Report

I stepped onto New York soil just as The World Happiness report was released and the flowers had begun to bloom in the parks of the metropolis. I was in New York as part of a EU funded exchange between universities from three different countries and my own place of work, MIELI ry.

Ruuskanen-Himma in New York.

I had arrived from the world’s happiest nation and I was asked to tell the social services students of NYU Social Silver School about Finland and The World Happiness Report.

I wanted to be as concrete as possible, so I showed the students a picture of my family. Each of my five children had received a free education. They are all adults now, and three of them receive a maternity and parental leave -allowance.  The municipality my grandmother lives in had just approved a monthly allowance for a place in a community home. In addition, high quality health care is practically free in Finland.

The World Happiness Report looks primarily at the institutional frameworks behind happiness, such as GDP, health, life expectancy, social relationships, freedom, trust toward the government, generosity and the politics of the current government. If one were to look only at the peaks or expressions of happiness, Paraguay, Panama or Guatemala might score higher while Finland would be considered average.

In the United States, millions of people are one tragedy away from being homeless. Homelessness and the opioid crisis are huge problems and not everyone can afford to have insurance or take care of their health. Education is also expensive and, for example, a family with two children in university might have to spend as much as the median salary in Finland for just one study year.

A significant part of Finland being ranked the happiest nation has to do with the economic and social safety net that is in place. If something were to happen to me or my family, we would be taken care of and receive aid to get past hard times. This is something that is easy to forget when life is good, but at the same time the underlying knowledge of this helps create a feeling of safety and ease that contributes to overall happiness.

Free education and health care secure every child’s right to attain an education despite their socio-economic background. Yes, taxes are high in Finland, but so is the level of education, health care and other services that are provided.

However, the inheritance of problems and issues over generations is a sad issue in both Finland and the United States. If one’s family has drug or mental health related problems, the children and family will remain in a vulnerable state even in the future. From an international point of view, every other person has mental health problems at some point during their lives. Many are also entirely rootless. These are factors that are not taken into consideration by the World Happiness Report. 
Bustling New York is a unique example and innovator in how the city has advanced mental health and tackled problems. The ThriveNyc- program, which started in November 2015, was initiated by the city and the mayor’s wife Chirlane McGray’s committed work. ThriveNyc includes 54 projects and cooperation over many different governmental sectors. London and many other cities are now taking lessons and collecting best practices from ThriveNyc.

The Mental Health First Aid -course, which is also known in Finland, has been provided to over 1,6 million in the U.S. I took part in one of these courses with Manhattan locals. New York offers a training course for citizens which concentrates on mental health problems. This course is known in Finland as Mental Health First Aid 2.
I was interested in the way influencing lessons ThriveNyc could provide and many of its subprojects such as increasing early support for different customer groups, teaching emotional skills in schools and providing professional mental health aid and training to families in vulnerable positions in life.

In this metropolis of eight million people, I met and discussed with a variety of professionals dedicated to tackling mental health issues. I met with the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, which is the local health services in charge of ThriveNyc. I also met with the provider of training for professionals, the Mental Health Service Crops and The National Council for Behavioral Health, which provides the mental health first aid course. In addition, I met with representatives from The Mental Health Association of Westchester, a large association that provides crisis help, the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations and several experts from the university.

Finnish mental health work as an export shone brightly. That is, mental health is seen as a health and resource that can be strengthened to be more prepared for life’s stressors. Knowledge and skill can be strengthened by improving emotional-, awareness-, communication- and problem-solving skills and the ability to seek help.

MIELI ry has trained the public and professionals in these skills for years and even has training material in several different languages.

As I was walking near Central Park, a homeless man asked me for money. I looked at the man sitting on the street and replied: “Sorry, no”. The man smiled at me and said: “Thanks anyway for the smile”.
It is important for everyone to be seen. Mental health is the continuous interaction between an individual, community and society.

Eila Ruuskanen-Himma visited New York 7.4-8.5.2019. MIELI RY is a part of the EU-funded CRISP exchange-program (Citizenship, Recovery and Inclusive Society Partnership), in which the United States, Germany, Scotland and Finland exchange experiences of promoting mental health in each respective society.