Kaire Talviste: “We must adopt a holistic approach towards mental health”

  • 2022-06-03

As mental health cases continue to rise across the globe, largely spurred on by the Coronavirus pandemic, Estonian clinical Gestalt psychotherapist, Kaire Talviste, explains what exactly is causing such a spike in mental health related issues within Baltic societies. Kaire, who is also an author of self-help books, believes that “psychosocial stress and lack of social contacts” are the primary reasons of why the Baltic nations sorrowfully experience some of the world’s highest rates of suicide. The Baltic Times Magazine caught up with Kaire Talviste to gain a further understanding about mental health both on a societal and personal level.

The COVID-19 pandemic no doubt had a significant effect on many people’s mental health. In your opinion, has the pandemic worsened societies mental health or has it simply highlighted mental health issues which were there before the pandemic but not discovered?

Many professionals are cautious about providing evaluations at the moment, as it’s difficult to distinguish what is caused by the pandemic. Gestalt theory states that humans are able to self-regulate, constantly looking for new balance and to adjust to changes. It is indeed trickier for the ones who suffer from traumatic, abusive and violent experiences.

There is an assumption that the effects of the pandemic are more visible in children and that adults tend to be somewhat unresponsive until a certain point. In Estonia, we have witnessed a deterioration of children’s mental health. Such mental health characteristics are usually displayed through depressive mood swings and increased suicidal behaviour.

This distinctive yet unsettling state of affairs has certainly brought along new anxieties: fear of becoming infected or to be the one who has caused someone else’s infection, dread of being made unemployed and uncertainty about the future. On top of this, the constant confusion around rule changes and prohibitions has strongly influenced relations between people, creating a sense of polarization.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are frequently listed on worldwide statistics as having some of the highest suicide rates in the world. This is extremely alarming, especially keeping in mind that Baltic countries have comparatively low populations too. In your opinion, why is this so? What exactly causes such tragic incidents to unfold within Baltic societies?

Sadly, that statement is true. Estonia is one of the top thirty countries in the world for death by suicide. It’s not possible to unequivocally name the main cause as suicides are too complex to be associated with a single cause. A WHO (World Health Organization) study linked Estonia's high suicide rate to a change in the social situation after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Many people were unable to adjust to social and economic changes, alcohol consumption increased and violence doubled – a behaviour which is often passed on by generations. According to a pan-European survey (FRA 2021), the highest amount of physical violence incidents occur in Estonia. The direct risk factor for suicide is psychosocial stress and lack of social contacts. In European statistics, Estonians are sadly at the forefront in being alone: almost a quarter of the Estonian population live alone. 

Within Estonia, have you seen notable improvements over the past thirty years of how Estonians both view and accept mental health issues and how does the modern world effect people’s mental well-being?

Despite Estonians being quite tolerant, people are still not willing to share their problems to others. A growing number of people are seeking help and contacting professionals working in the mental health field. During the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been a clear pattern developing of women calling the crisis phone line whom have suicidal thoughts, often when they are in an abusive relationship.

I would like to emphasize that we must adopt a holistic approach towards mental health. To blame solely the incapacity of an individual is too short-sighted. People are deeply embedded in a broader social-economic system which has a big effect on quality of life. Poverty is a strong indicator which is frequently paired together with poor mental wellbeing.

Kaire, as a Clinical Gestalt Psychotherapist, your work introduces you to people from all walks of life who require a wide range of solutions to specific issues. What would you say are the most common mental health conditions which your clients are suffering from?

My work includes a wide range of topics, many of which come under the term ‘relational suffering’. I work alongside young children, teenagers and adults who have suffered from traumatic experiences, resulting in issues of trust and self-harm. I also help victims of domestic violence (physical, sexual, economical and psychological) with their depressive and anxious states as a consequence. In addition, I specialize in parental alienation and educate other specialists about this specific topic.

An ever-increasing problem which I witness is that of children’s excessive digital media use and lack of basic skills – children are afraid of contact, to look you in the eye and to communicate. In some cases, they do not know how to tie shoelaces and how to behave at the dinner table while engaging in dialogue. Many youngsters struggle to separate the digital world from real one.

Alongside my partner, Oliver Baiocco, who is a Gestalt and body therapist, we work with international couples to improve their relational wellbeing. We named it ‘Couple School’ rather than therapy, to maintain the curiosity of discovering what kind of relational language we have learned from our parents in order to differentiate the triggers which occur from our partner or individual reactions. Our sessions are experience based – we work with clay, drawing and body movements.

Day-to-day, you’re continuously surrounded by intense and emotional scenarios. How do you deal with the management of your own mental health? Is there anything specific which you do in order to ‘switch off’ from work?

I always view self-protection as a holistic approach. Holistic self-care is much more than going for a walk or to the gym. On one hand, it means prioritising taking care of one’s body and creative activities outside of work. When alone, I enjoy playing a musical instrument, going for a swim or engaging in an acrobatics session. I pay attention to my nutrition and make sure that I get quality sleep on a regular basis. On a professional level, I’m supported by my supervisor, well known Gestalt psychotherapist, Miriam Taylor, from the UK, who has nearly thirty years of experience working with traumatic issues. Gestalt therapy is profoundly rooted in creating good relations, which is why I view it more as a lifestyle than a method. Therefore, my biggest source of strength and resilience originates from my own family, friends and most importantly, from my partner.

At one point in our lives, many of us will experience some psychologically challenging moments. It could be that someone reading this interview at this very moment could be struggling with their own mental health. If you could provide some tips to help someone who may be struggling, what would you say and why?

I firmly believe that attending psychotherapy sessions is an expression of wishing to have a better quality of life. I do not regard my clients as being sick or lacking something, as I understand that their current problems are the results of creative and very smart adjustments to some pressing situations. Together, we work to find the meaning behind the symptoms and senselessness. I assure you that it looks quite different from what you have viewed from a screen and what may have scared you off. 

One year ago, a very machismo like male approached me. He explained that taking the first step to come to seek help was incredibly daunting for himself. Shockingly, he even considered taking his own life as he held a gun in one hand and a phone in the other. Following ten sessions, he was amazed that it was so much different from what he had imagined it to be.

My message is: see a psychotherapist when you feel ready. Please do not give up if your first session does not go to plan. Continue until you find a person with whom you feel safe, as a trustful relation between therapist and client is one of the most important factors in moving forward and healing from different kinds of traumas. Find a person who you can confide in and trust!