Committee of International Women Leaders for Mental Health Congress, July 11, 1997
Mrs Eeva Ahtisaari, opening address


The crises that take place in people's lives are not dependent on age, sex or social status. It is characteristic of our time, as we approach the end of the millennium, that individual people feel insecure, uncertain and alienated. Many societies suffer from a disintegration of fundamental structures. It is not without reason that we talk about the 'risk society' as a phenomenon typical of our time.

The basic structures of work have undergone a complete revolution in all Western countries. The pressures are just as bad for those who are working as they are for the unemployed. The growing requirements of the workplace have created a necessity to compete for work and welfare, and in this competition it is only the strong and active who survive; the weak are excluded. Families, children and young people, in particular, have to face hardships. Mental and economic uncertainty have come to be a permanent element of adult life.

In such situations, families must endure many challenges and pressures. Parents have a hard time. For the past hundred years, the nuclear family has been the cornerstone of society. In today's world, family and home are still very important, and at best, home is a place where the individual can recharge his mental and physical batteries. Families should pass on positive values and attitudes - faith in life, self-confidence, capacity for survival. We need a feeling of continuity. We need a safe community to attach ourselves to.

But it is just as often that the dream of a happy family and the actual reality are at odds. In spite of the fact that material well-being has increased and technological advances have been made, the European picture of the family is overshadowed by a number of factors. Families suffer from stress, anxiety, alcoholism, lack of love and insecurity. As a

result of this parents avoid their responsibility. And single parents and new-style families have come to stay.

Expanding international interaction is also reflected in an increasing number of marriages between citizens from different countries and religions. It is an unfortunate fact that custody disputes and child kidnappings are everyday occurrences in many countries. Although the key term today is 'multicultural', it has become clear that the bringing together of different principles regarding family and sex roles is not always successful in practice.

In Europe, most children are doing well: European children are seldom ill, they are seldom susceptible to serious epidemics, they enjoy a relatively full life and have opportunities for a good education. Is everything all right, then? No, for unemployment, falling into debt and outright poverty cause a great deal of aggravation in too many homes all round Europe today. Children are the weakest link in the chain, and show the first symptoms of malaise. Many families are sorely pressed. It is estimated that there are two and a half million homeless people in the EU countries. More and more children live in the streets, on the fringes of organized society. Most have had to leave their homes because their parents were unable to care for them and bring them up properly, and because of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In the Western lifestyle, both home and school have lost their influence over our children. Parents have become uncertain about using their own common sense, since this era of rationality of ours underlines the importance of expert control. Stressful family life, where family members do not have enough time for each other, leading to poor interaction, may also cause problems in families where both parents work outside the home, even when the family is financially secure. Indifference to how children spend their time is a problem that I wish to tackle as the First Lady of my country.

However, our society provides a great deal of stimulation outside the family. The media, popular culture, music, videos and computer games all contribute to building a child's view of the world, but there are also other, more dangerous attractions - street gangs, alcohol, drugs. Childhood is getting shorter all the time, while youth culture is taking a firmer grip among ever younger people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be able to tell you that the mental health work carried out among children in Finland is top quality by international standards. It has a long history: mental health work celebrates its 100th anniversary in Finland this year. We have done pioneering work in many respects. The advancement of mental health began at a time when mental illness was frequently associated with shame, superstition and suspicion. The enthusiastic pioneers believed in factual knowledge, unprejudiced education and versatile, high-quality treatment and preventive work in crises. This tiny trickle of activity has since grown into roaring rapids that now cover the entire country.

Family-oriented work and youth work have increased in the past ten years. Our mental well-being consists of many factors. Although the future outlook is sometimes bleak, it is the duty of us adults and parents to encourage and educate young people, and to give them faith in the future. We - parents, experts and volunteers - need common platforms to discuss the sometimes painful social problems of our time in an open and unprejudiced manner. It is important to learn from the experiences of other countries. It therefore gives me great pleasure, and I feel it is an honour, to bid all of you, influential women leaders in your respective countries, welcome to Helsinki and Finland.

Today's Congress has been organized by the United States Carter Center and the World Federation for Mental Health. I hope our discussions will be fruitful. I now invite the Chairman of the Committee of International Women Leaders for Mental Health, Mrs Rosalynn Carter, to open the meeting.