How Sweden is reinventing its youth mental health support

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Liza-Maria Norlin, Process Manager at GovTech Sweden.

Things are “going in the wrong direction” for the mental health of Sweden’s young people, says Liza-Maria Norlin, Process Manager at GovTech Sweden. Self-reported mental health issues have been growing among Sweden’s school children since the 1980s, according to its public health agency.

GovTech Sweden has been working with startups to develop tools to address this issue. These include apps that provide personal counselling and regular check ups, which weren’t happening previously.

Norlin highlights the work of these socially-conscious businesses as part of her role to grow Sweden’s government tech industry. She also shares how the agency is helping the rest of society grow comfortable with using tech.

Developing youth mental health tools

GovTech Sweden aims to boost youth mental health by helping relevant startups that lack resources and expertise. It enables these health startups to develop their digital tools alongside schools and public health research, Norlin highlights.

One startup is developing an app to help young people suffering from obesity and its consequent effect on mental health. The app will guide users on how to make lifestyle changes and allows them to chat with an online mentor.

Users will get regular updates and guidance on how to improve their wellbeing. The app will provide daily support, rather than only addressing health issues in hospital visits, she explains.

Another startup helped a school to monitor the mental wellbeing of students. It built an app where students can regularly discuss their feelings with school staff and report indicators of poor mental health, such as if they’ve skipped a meal, Norlin says.

This proactive strategy was created by a mental wellness doctor, who previously could only provide treatment in person. Going online helped him reach more young people.

GovTech is helping startups make their innovative ideas a reality in collaboration with Bizmaker, an organisation that specialises in helping businesses to grow. It teaches small businesses how to pitch ideas, manage finances, and understand how public sector organisations operate.

The next step is to explore how governments can share their innovations across borders to save time and effort. “We cannot expect everything to be made here locally,” she says.

3 key areas to tackle

On top of youth mental health, Norlin highlights three issues GovTech Sweden is tackling.

First, the organisation is highlighting the use of AI in healthcare, together with the national centre for artificial intelligence. These experts look to break down the barriers that are preventing AI from being adopted across the country, their website wrote.

This is a particular challenge for Sweden’s healthcare sector. The country’s health system is divided across 21 regions, each with their own regulations, IT systems and leadership, Norlin continues.

Second, GovTech Sweden is supporting a group of local governments as they look to improve areas of public life with technology. These include digitising school tests and using digital tools could help in dementia care, the group’s website wrote.

The organisation brought members of the regional and national government together to share ideas on how to address these challenges. It also advised the eight municipalities on how to begin working with entrepreneurs to provide these digital tools.

Third, it is exploring virtual reality for discussing national issues. These anonymous discussions encourage more openness with sharing ideas, write the technology’s developers, who are sharing their experiences with GovTech Sweden.

Finland has already seen success when hosting these virtual discussions. Its public sector “used this as a way of innovating new ways of working with citizens, digital services and so on”, Norlin says.

A different kind of GovTech

GovTech Sweden collaborates with private businesses to support citizen needs. “The Swedish ecosystem for GovTech is quite different from other countries” because initiatives are usually run solely by the national government, shares Norlin.

GovTech Sweden was started by a group of tech-focused private and public sector officials, rather than being created by the national government. Its origins mean that it now works closely with the private sector to develop new tools and services.

Working with startups is beneficial as they make fast decisions. “The public sector needs that kind of culture sometimes,” she says. Small businesses are also more willing to address social issues, such as improving mental health, when compared to larger companies, she adds.

Sweden’s public sector is not yet collaborating with the private sector at the levels of Denmark and Norway, says Norlin. But its youth mental health innovation and lively discussions are a good starting point.