Helsinki (29.10.2001 - Juhani Artto) Each year 3,000 Finns retire because of mental illness. This means that such early retirement annually affects more than one person in one thousand in working life. Only rheumatic and motor disorders play a bigger role in early retirement.

Mental illness has become the single largest category of reasons for sick leave, accounting for 60 per cent of all time spent off work for medical reasons. Experts estimate that about 200,000 of the million plus rank and file members of SAK trade unions suffer from mental problems during at least one period in their working lives.

Women suffer from mental disorders slightly more frequently than men in Finnish working life. No age-specific characteristics have been verified.

There is a clear connection between the increase in mental illnesses and growing insecurity and demands in working life. Workplaces are no longer sources of security in life, and it has become more difficult to get a job. All of this makes people more vulnerable to depression and other mental disorders.

The trade unions have a positive role to play in combating this problem. The general struggle for decent working conditions is part of the answer to this growing challenge. The unions also advise their activists and other members about the nature and dangers of mental illnesses. A - The trade union magazines published articles on this problem to coincide with the period around last October 10th - Mental Health Day.

Educational materials emphasise the responsibility of the entire working community. Both employers' representatives and workmates are responsible for helping anyone who shows symptoms of mental unbalance. Their workload and context must be properly adjusted to avoid exacerbating the problem. Often the person actually suffering from mental weaknesses cannot recognise the symptoms. In such cases colleagues can assist the sufferer to contact a mental health specialist and advice can be sought for the entire work organisation in how to react wisely to developments. The earlier this happens, the better the outcome for the person living through such a difficult period.

When a person suffering from mental illness returns from sick leave it is the responsibility of everyone at the workplace to provide support. This is especially important because work can be an effective therapy in itself. The longer a period of sick leave continues, the bigger the risk becomes that depression will lead to permanent incapacity to work. Even after returning to work following depression-induced sick leave it takes months to recover completely.

Experts consider that incorrect attitudes towards people suffering from mental illness are not as prevalent in Finland as they once were. However, both union activists and employers still have much to do in educating working communities to fully understand the problem and react to it in the right way.