Kadri Haljas: psychologist cannot drag a person through life 24/7

Kadri Haljas: psychologist cannot drag a person through life 24/7
Published: 10. May 2023
Categories: Interview

Kadri Haljas‘ mission began at the end of secondary school when she realized she wanted to become a psychologist. Today, the playful mobile application created by her company Triumf Health contributes to the development of resilience in children and the improvement of mental health for humanity as a whole. 

Why is the mental health of children and humanity in general in such great danger today?

We live in a time of crises where one follows another. Children and young people were already worried about the future of the planet before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the war in Ukraine started. A feeling of hopelessness arises, which is a very significant stress factor in the development of mental health disorders. Adults are also affected by the surrounding rapid developments and it can be challenging to keep up with it. The direction in which society is moving affects us greatly.

How do children develop mental resilience?

We do not live in an ideal world where all children grow up in a supported environment. There are many things that can go wrong, for example, due to the environment – how peers behave, bullying, etc. We are not born with the skills to cope with stress. We must learn them like we learn different things in our lives. We all have the prerequisites for this, and it is influenced by both genes and the environment.

In addition, many of the adults who are parents today often lack knowledge on mental health topics because the field was still relatively unknown in Estonia until recently. Everyone had to figure out how to cope on their own. If we have not learned how to take care of our mental health, then it is also very challenging to pass it on to our children.

It is said that the foundation created by parents and the first three years of a child’s life are crucial for developing resilience.

In this regard, I really like what neuroscientist Jaan Aru always says about having a long-term perspective. The chicks can only be counted after 30 years. The most important thing is to have a supportive and open environment where the child feels safe and can express their emotions and speak their mind. If you feel cared for, then you are capable of anything. Parents play a big role in really being present and asking how their children feel. Different emotions are okay, there are no bad emotions. If anger turns into aggression, then we have a problem, but feelings as such are all normal.

Is there any data on how your playful approach has helped children increase resilience?

We can only measure how our game has supported children’s development in a big picture years from now. In our research, we have been monitoring three components: children’s quality of life, mental health, and engagement.

The aim of the game is to bring about positive behavioral changes and promote resilience so that children feel and cope better. And, we have shown this positive impact in our studies. Today we no longer conduct such large clinical trials, but we monitor the game’s impact through in-game data. After 30 days of using the app, we study its effectiveness, attractiveness, and ease of use, and everyone can provide feedback. Children say that they have learned to know themselves better and can cope better with their emotions.

How did you get to playful approach?

I come from a background in child psychology. It all started when I realized that there is always a shortage of specialists and we need a solution. I started thinking about whether it would be possible to use technology to reach more children so they would have tools to deal with their mental health.

We involve many children in the process because they are the experts. It turned out that mobile games are a safe, familiar, and intuitive environment for them. Why not also add an educational component to it? Children can play and learn through playful activities at the same time.

Our goal is for children to deal with their mental health and understand how to cope better in different situations and what mental health techniques are. In the game, they can go through different therapy methods and then choose the ones they like.

Why is going to a psychologist and mental health still largely a taboo?

People turn to psychologists too late because no one wants to be a person in need. We have a large community of alternative mental health experts in Estonia who offer their services and whose waiting lists are long. In addition, there are different specialists, such as coaches, who do not make people feel like they are crazy or in trouble. By visiting them, there are no stigmas, you are just a progressive person.

People’s mindset is such that they do not dare to admit certain topics and therefore seek solutions from places where they do not feel that it is strategic therapy. In Estonia, there is also the problem that a psychologist or psychiatrist appointment is quite inaccessible. Even if people wanted to go, it is often not possible because a lot of sad things can happen in the six months they are waiting for an appointment.

Why is it like this?

There can never be enough psychologists and psychiatrists. Even if we trained them ten or a hundred times more, each person must still take responsibility for their own mental health. No specialist can hold someone’s hand 24/7 through life. There need to be services at different levels. Our game is the very first, easily accessible service at the bottom of the pyramid, which can be used at one’s own pace. Specialists should be at the top of the pyramid, dealing only with the most complex cases.

In our society, the field of mental health is still quite new, and people don’t know much about how to deal with it, so we all end up waiting behind the psychologist’s door. People should realize that there are different options for where to turn with their problems. This clarity doesn’t exist yet, and people often end up going to a psychiatrist with issues that could have been dealt with earlier.

We are in a phase where we want quick solutions and hope to hack the situation. At some point, we will realize that we need to build a strong foundation so that we don’t collapse at the first strong gust of wind.

How are sustainability and mental health related?

All changes start within ourselves, but often people don’t want to make changes in their own behavior. They think, “Why bother?” This leads to a hopeless situation where we don’t care about ourselves or the environment around us. When we feel good, then we are also willing to contribute to society and the planet as a whole. But if we’re squeezed dry like lemons, we don’t have the resources to do so.

What is your vision for the future of mental health?

In my ideal world, we have more specialists, digital solutions, and accessible methods. Actually, there is already useful information being spread on social media today, not necessarily evidence-based methods, but different techniques and ways to take care of one’s mental health.

In reality, the mental health pyramid is gradual, with various ways to deal with one’s mental well-being at the lowest levels. Technology allows us to reach as many people as possible, which also solves the problem of lacking human resources.

Interviewer: Kerttu Kongas

Join Kadri at the Impact Day festival in Tallinn on October 5-6 where she will talk about her challenging journey to international success. 

The project is supported by ESTDEV – Estonian Centre for International Development

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