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Samuli Saarni promotes psychiatry as a career choice and develops a more sustainable mental health system

Published on 3.5.2024
Tampere University
Puolikuva professori Samuli Saarnista sininen puku päällä, vihreä kasvi vieressä
Professor of Psychiatry Samuli Saarni.Photo: Jonne Renvall / Tampereen yliopisto
Samuli Saarni, newly appointed Professor of Psychiatry at Tampere University, studies and develops the mental health system in Finland to improve access to mental health services. Digital interventions and training methods hold promise for alleviating the current shortage of resources.

Finland’s mental health system is currently unable to meet the high demand for care. People are not getting the help they need, which not only leads to human suffering but also has a tremendous economic impact, for example, due to lost productivity and inability to work. This situation is unsustainable for our society and the very challenge that Professor Samuli Saarni is looking to resolve.

"As the mental health system in Finland is facing a severe staffing shortage, the whole system must be rethought to leverage existing resources and maximise access to mental health care,” Saarni says.

Saarni has co-founded and currently leads the First-Line Therapies initiative, which is geared towards developing a mental health system that prioritises primary care. The implementation of this new model of care, which is a part of the ongoing social services and healthcare reform in Finland, is now underway across the country.

Digital mental health interventions and training methods hold great promise for optimising the use of existing resources and improving cost-effectiveness. Ideally, digital solutions can help to address staffing shortages and improve both learning and treatment outcomes.  

The research conducted within the framework of the First-Line Therapies initiative concentrates on the efficiency of the mental health system and different treatment options. In addition, the participants provide training to therapists and carry out pedagogical research on digitally assisted therapist training.

"Digital interventions and training methods open up a world of new possibilities. The idea is not to replace human interaction with digital tools but find the right balance between face-to-face and digital care,” Saarni points out.

Saarni enjoys combining academic research with development activities. The First-Line Therapies initiative also has a strong practical focus as it seeks to translate scientific discoveries into practice. Research is conducted with the aim of making a tangible impact on Finland’s healthcare system and health policy.

"The University has a unique role that combines academic research, high-quality education and development activities that deliver benefits for society,” Saarni says.

Puolikuva professori Samuli Saarnista sininen puku päällä, keltainen seinä taustallaPhoto: Jonne Renvall / Tampereen yliopisto


Promoting interest in psychiatry among medical students

There is a shortage of psychiatrists in Finland, and the number of psychiatry graduates is nowhere near enough to meet the demand. It is therefore important to increase the attractiveness of psychiatry as a medical specialty, which is also one of Saarni’s goals as a professor.

Saarni finds that collaboration between academic psychiatry and the welfare services county of Pirkanmaa is extremely important.

"The University should be able to train medical doctors and specialists who choose a career in psychiatry, are experts in the field of psychiatry and enjoy their work. It is especially important to provide a high-quality learning environment for psychiatry students in cooperation with the region’s welfare services county," Saarni notes.

Building bridges between medicine and social sciences

Professor Saarni has followed a slightly unorthodox career path, as he has completed multiple degrees and is pursuing two parallel research careers. He completed his medical degree while also studying for a master’s degree in social science and holds two doctorates: a D.Med.Sci in psychiatry and a PhD in healthcare ethics. He has been awarded the title of docent in both social psychiatry and healthcare ethics.

According to Saarni, expertise in medicine, social sciences and ethics is a fitting combination for a psychiatrist. The mix of mutually complementary expertise in social sciences, mental health care and the development of healthcare systems allows for an in-depth exploration of the influence of society on mental health. 

"The mental health system is a major social issue. As mental disorders do not go away simply by treating them, we need to take a holistic approach to the development of the mental health system to ensure that the system can also address the underlying social conditions that increase people’s susceptibility to different problems. Besides, mental health issues are conceptually complex and cannot be reduced into simple, value-neutral scientific phenomena," Saarni says.

Throughout his career, research has always been high on Saarni’s list of priorities. Following his appointment as a professor, he no longer has to work after hours on a regular basis to find time for research. Still, Saarni finds it difficult to draw a line between work and free time, because working, studying and research are hobbies for him. 

"I see them as personally meaningful and rewarding activities, so why should I stop at 4pm and go play golf? I do not even like golf."

Welcome to the inaugural lectures of the new professors on 16 May 2024.

Samuli Saarni

  • Saarni received his D.Med.Sci from the University of Helsinki in 2008 and his PhD in ethics from the University of Turku in 2010.
  • Saarni holds docentships in social psychiatry and healthcare ethics. He is a medical specialist in healthcare and psychiatry and a qualified psychotherapist. He has also completed an EMBA degree.
  • Saarni has held numerous leadership roles, for example, as Chief Medical Officer in the hospital district of Southwest Finland, as Senior Vice President in charge of the health and wellbeing division of the OP Financial Group, and as President of the Finnish Medical Association.
  • Saarni has served as the Program Director of the First-Line Therapies initiative since 2020.

Author: Jenna Ala-Rantala