Psychosocial risk factors in Lithuania

Since the restoration of its independence in 1990, Lithuania has worked to implement prevention programs for youth. However, the extent of social problems in the country remains and includes a poor economic state, unemployment, drug and alcohol dependency, and child neglect in families. According to some estimates the situation in the country is improving, however the statistics show that social and economic problems still remain. In 2012, the Statistics Lithuania survey (Gruzevskis & Blaziene, 2013) indicated that 20 percent of Lithuanian people lived below the poverty line, and that in January 2013 the rate of unemployment was 13.3 percent. It is important to note that Lithuania is affected by emigration at the highest level of all the European countries. In 2009, 21,970 Lithuanian citizens emigrated and a year later, in 2010, the number was almost four times higher - 83,157 citizens. From 2011, the yearly emigration numbers remained significant from 40,391 to 53,863 with the poor economy cited as the main reason for emigration. The statistics indicate that in 2012, there were 10,389 families with socio-economic risk factors raising 21,303 children in Lithuania. According to the statistics of the State Child Rights Protection and Adoption Service under the Ministry of Social Security and Labor, at the end of 2012, the number of children living in children’s care homes was 4,030.

Very often children raised in poor environments have behavioral and emotional difficulties, dependencies, and do not attend school. According to the statistics of the Centre of Information Technologies in Education, in 2013 most children were truant for social-psychological reasons such as a lack of parental attention, vagrancy, conflicts with peers, teachers, and parents, neglect, or changes in housing status. The State Mental Health Centre reported that, between 2006 and 2011, there were 137 in-patient children treated for alcohol dependency and 227 children treated for psychotropic substance dependency. In 2011-2012, the number of children treated for behavioral and emotional disorders reached more that 8,000 (State Mental Health Centre and Statistics Lithuania). The National Health Insurance Fund, under the Ministry of Health, places this number of children’s emotional disorders even higher - 40,000 (6.7 percent of all children in Lithuania). The State Child Rights Protection and Adoption Service advised that in 2012, 1,343 children were reported to be victims of abuse. In 2013, the number of minors suspected of committing criminal activities was registered at 2,222 for crimes, and 229 for penal (public order) violations, such as disrespect to others or the environment.

Since Lithuania’s independence, juvenile delinquency and its prevention has been, and still is, a burning issue that motivates experts to analyze the current situation, and to create and implement the necessary prevention and intervention measures. A growing number of juvenile delinquent criminal acts, according to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children Rights of the Republic of Lithuania (2013), was one of the main reasons for the push for reform of the juvenile justice system. Other reasons that prompted the reform were the inefficiency of juvenile criminal justice, the need for different approaches to punishment as the main state’s response to juvenile delinquent criminal behavior, and international obligations that the Republic of Lithuania took upon itself (for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child).

In 1996, juvenile justice reform was implemented in Lithuania. Its main goals were to create alternatives to punishment as well as preventive social intervention measures for juvenile delinquents. In 2000, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as “Vaiko labui” (For the Benefit of Children) and “Paramos vaikams centras” (Child Support Center) were established in Lithuania, which were first to draw attention to the importance of the development of children’s social and emotional skills in Lithuania. Programs such as “Zipio draugai” (Zippy’s Friends), “fveikime kartu” (Let’s Overcome It Together) and “Antras zingsnis” (The Second Step) started their operation to help children gain coping skills for overcoming social and emotional difficulties in order to improve their emotional well-being in nurseries, kindergartens, and schools. International programs such as the Lions Quest, “Paauglystes kryzkeles” (The Crossroads of Teenagers), and “Raktai j sekm?” (Keys to Success) have emerged. The latter two have identified important children’s social and emotional skills and have asserted that high emotional intelligence leads to success in one’s personal life and high academic achievement.

The Lithuanian Government responded to the World Health Organization’s report on violence and health, which identified violence as a public health issue, by approving, in 2008, the national program for fighting child abuse and highlighting the social and emotional education of children as one of the most effective tools for ensuring good mental health and preventing violence against children. In 2008, the term Emotional Intelligence was first mentioned in official documents in Lithuania.

Recently, social-emotional education and its positive impact on children’s mental health have become increasingly common. Social-emotional skills (i.e., Emotional Intelligence) involve the ability to cooperate, to learn productively, and to play the most important roles within the family, and in the community and workplace. Learning was found to be influenced by many social and emotional factors. An uneasy and fearful student, who feels like a stranger in the school environment, has a diminished ability to learn. “A school where bullying is a daily phenomenon is not the place where children can feel encouraged to learn and grow” (Valantinas, 2008).

However, after almost 20 years many prevention programs in schools have not yet reached their overall goals. One reason may be the difficulty in meeting the challenge of sustained interventions over time in order to develop an internal locus of control in students. Another reason could be the emotional distance between teachers, parents, and students and conflicts in teacher-student relationships. The 2013 UNICEF report indicated that, in Lithuania, not only does one child out of every two experience bullying from other children, but also that one in three children report having experienced bullying from their teachers. In addition, teachers have reported feeling overburdened due to excessive responsibilities. Teachers who are tired and feel unsafe w'ould likely be poor examples of emotional literacy, because children learn behaviors through social observation. In order to be sensitive and to respond to the emotional state of students, teachers must first be sensitive to their own emotions. This leads to a focus on the essentials of interventions, such as: How can teachers learn to be emotionally stronger? What kind of help can the school administration offer so as to create a safe, positive, and welcoming environment in schools?

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