“Sometimes it is ok not to be ok” has become a new norm, thanks to a flagship project run by Center for Global Health in Prishtina, Synapsis World in Skopje and Center for Research and Project Implementation in Tirana. The platform can be accessed at – https://shendetimendor.org/
In a world forever changed by the Covid-19 pandemic, mental well-being has became an urgent concern.
“Talk with Me!”, an initiative distinguished by its powerful slogan “Sometimes, it is ok not to be ok,” has become one of the most memorable projects of the 5th Call for Proposals, co-funded by the European Union’s, Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA).
“Fol me mu!” began as a humble website with a profound mission – to be a comforting presence for anyone seeking assistance during rough patches of their lives. Established amidst the lockdowns, it served as an invaluable tool, providing support to numerous individuals affected by anxiety, fear, trauma, and other psychological challenges.
Fast forward, two years later, the visionary behind this transformative endeavor, Professor Aliriza Arenliu, a distinguished member of the Department of Psychology at the University of Prishtina and the founder of the esteemed “Center for Global Health” NGO, has connected with partners in Albania and North Macedonia hoping to create a regional alliance supporting mental health well-being in the Western Balkans Region.
Thanks to the WBF-EU grant they were awarded, “Talk with Me” webpage has been reactivated and enriched with compelling new videos and texts addressing a wide range of mental health issues. Moreover, the partners have embarked on a transformative journey across the region, conducting workshops that aim to strengthen a robust network of support for mental health concerns.
Eager to delve deeper into the profound impact “Talk with Me!” is making in people’s lives, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Arenliu and Ms. Shkurtë Bajgora to discuss about how “Talk with Me!” is making an impact in the lives of the people.
Dear Mr. Arenliu and Ms Bajgora. How the idea of creating an online platform for treating psychological issues originated?
The idea for the platform was initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation created by the pandemic, with its lockdowns and isolation, made us realize that traditional ways of providing mental health services were not feasible. We started with a helpline in collaboration with the Ministry of Health of Kosovo*, the Municipality of Prizren, and later with the support of the University of Prishtina, we launched the current platform. Master’s level students played an important role in creating the materials. The platform was transferred to the management of the current organization as its funding was easier to secure compared to maintaining it within the university.
What is your organization’s experience in dealing with mental health-related issues?
The organization has mainly focused on providing digital services exclusively through online means, with a particular emphasis on offering psychological first aid that does not replace current services. The organization has more experience in mental health research.
Investing in digital mental health services offers an opportunity to overcome this stigma by providing anonymous and private assistance
In the post-COVID world, what are the main challenges our Contracting Parties face regarding mental health?
The pandemic has caused a spike in psychological distress due to lockdowns, economic issues resulting from the pandemic, and the loss of loved ones. Overall, social isolation, unemployment, economic uncertainty, and limited access to healthcare services have increased the risk of mental health problems. Additionally, post-COVID stigma surrounding mental health remains high in our countries. Therefore, we believe that investing in digital mental health services offers an opportunity to overcome this stigma by providing anonymous and private assistance. Our countries have limited mental health resources, especially in prevention and education, which we aim to address.
How did the partnership with your project partners come about and develop?
We were familiar with partners from other projects, and when we saw the call from the Western Balkans Fund. Tana Aliaj from Albania suggested that we apply together. We realized that our existing resources could serve three Contracting Parties with some minor adjustments. We are very happy with this partnership.
What is your long-term goal, and what does the future hold for “Fol me Mu”?
Our goal is to establish sustainability for the platform and further develop a mobile application for smartphones. With our available resources, we have already developed a preliminary version that we would like to launch as soon as possible due to the need for digital mental health services.
Who are the typical users of the chat support at the platform?
Typical users are individuals between the ages of 18 and 30. They come with a variety of concerns, such as difficulties at work, anxiety, stress, panic attacks, family problems, etc.
Does this service need further expansion, and do you think, under certain circumstances and with sufficient funding, it could become a cross-regional platform?
Yes, we believe that especially with a mobile application, it could easily be developed into a regional project where users can choose their preferred language. When a material is developed in one language, it can be easily replicated in other languages.
What is your feedback on working with the Western Balkans Fund? How valuable is a regional organization like the Fund?
Our collaboration with the Western Balkans Fund has been very successful. The continuous support they have provided has helped us implement the project in the best possible way. Such an organization is very valuable, as it offers the opportunity to cooperate with neighboring countries and expand the possibilities of helping more people through our platform.
We must be clear and articulate on this point: the platform is not a substitute for treatment. It offers psychoeducation and psychological first aid and then refers users when necessary. The platform provides relief for many people who fear, feel embarrassed, or have reservations about discussing their problems, and this unique opportunity is also acknowledged by our users.Aliriza Arenliu
Is the online platform a substitute for psychotherapy and specialized services, or is it an additional tool to assist users without replacing the benefits of face-to-face treatment with a specialist?
We must be clear and articulate on this point: the platform is not a substitute for treatment. It offers psychoeducation and psychological first aid and then refers users when necessary. The platform provides relief for many people who fear, feel embarrassed, or have reservations about discussing their problems, and this unique opportunity is also acknowledged by our users.
Do you have a message for all the people reading this interview, as well as for those who still consider seeking mental health assistance as stigmatized in our region?
Mental health is a part of overall health, and it should not be separated. Therefore, education and psychoeducation can be crucial in maintaining mental health and seeking help for mental health issues. Let’s not forget that mental health problems can often be factors that contribute to or cause other health issues.
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ opinion on Kosovo declaration of independence.