In Focus: Mental Health Care System Criticized

Mental health issues in Iceland are now at the forefront of the national discussion, as many consider the Icelandic mental health care system to be subpar and failing those who depend on it. The usage of antidepressants is much higher in Iceland than elsewhere in the Nordic countries, RÚV reports, and according to a recent study by NOMESCO, the Nordic Medico-Statistical Committee, patients in Iceland have a much shorter stay in psychiatric hospital on average than in the other Nordic countries. Depression rates rank among the highest in Europe and suicides are on the rise.

A substantial number of people are unhappy with health officials’ handling of patients in psychiatric wards as well as the general treatment of mental patients. Two individuals committed suicide while on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward of the National Hospital of Iceland within a span of 10 days in last August, Vísir reports. Around 40 individuals resort to committing suicide each year in Iceland and citizens are calling for an immediate resolution to the matter.

Psychiatrist visits are not part of the socialized health care system in the country, and thus a portion of the populace cannot afford to see a psychiatrist. Furthermore, long waiting lists face those looking to enter psychiatric wards and especially so for young people. María, the parent of a 10-year-old child with severe mental problems, desperate commented: “There is a lot wrong when 10-year-old children have to attempt suicide to get assistance”. Several independent mental health awareness programs are now afoot in the country such as ‘Allir Gráta’ (Everybody cries) and Hugrún (a mental health program run by nursing students at the University of Iceland). The hashtag #égerekkitabú (#iamnottaboo) has also raised awareness of mental health in recent years.

Anti-depressants are counted as nerve- and psychoactive drugs and Icelanders use 26% more than the nation which follows Iceland in the rankings. „We have the highest usage rates among OECD nations, we have seen these usage rates for quite a few years but it is ever-growing and in the last few years we have seen a substantial increase among younger users“, says Ólafur B. Einarsson, project manager in Supervision and Incidents at the Icelandic Directorate of Health. The increase in usage by young people is a profound 38%, making further studies even more urgent.

Numbers that NOMESCO has released from 2012 show that the number of days that patients stay in psychiatric hospital in Iceland is only 90 days. The other Nordic countries rank higher in this metric as the number of days is 143 in Denmark, 257 in Finland, 292 in Norway, 495 in Sweden. Iceland does, however, have a similar number of psychiatric doctors per 100,000 inhabitants as its Nordic neighbours.

While Iceland has high anti-depressant usage rates, the nation consistently ranks high on the World Happiness Report. Iceland was ranked 3rd in the World Happiness Report of 2017 which is a measure of happiness published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Even though Iceland ranks high in terms of happiness, the European Health Interview Survey of 2015 reported that 9% of the nation has depressive symptoms. This is the fourth highest rate among participating countries. Furthermore, over 4% of the population had severe symptoms of depression, which was the second highest rate in Europe. Depression is a pressing issue for the country as health officials strive to improve the mental health of the nation.

In Focus is a series of articles intended to shed a light on contemporary issues in Iceland, keeping readers informed on subjects and matters present in the national discussion.


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