Elina Marttinen, PhD in psychology, works with troubled youth. Forming a clear identity is important for the development of young people. For some of them, however, identity remains ambiguous and incoherent. The difficulty of life choices is reflected in wellbeing issues. Alongside her work as a researcher, Marttinen has been active in Nyyti, an organisation promoting the mental wellbeing of students, since 2005.

Elina Marttinen comes originally from Helsinki. She matriculated from Ressu Upper Secondary School in 2000 and was accepted to study psychology at the University of Helsinki. Her interest in psychology arose during her exchange student year in New Zealand. Living in a local family and within a different culture made her consider the differences between human minds and the forming of a persona.

“At upper secondary school, I took every course in psychology that I could. During my university studies, the feeling that psychology is the right field for me only grew stronger.”

Students were encouraged to conduct research. Before graduating, Marttinen was hired as a research assistant in the FinEdu longitudinal research project led by Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro. The project investigated motivation, school engagement and goal orientation among vocational school students and general upper secondary school students.

“In this study, adolescents and young adults were categorised based on what kind of goals they set, how education and career objectives motivated them, and how they defined who they are.”

Professor Salmela-Aro supervised Marttinen’s master’s thesis and encouraged her to pursue a doctoral dissertation. As a result, she transferred to the University of Jyväskylä as a postgraduate student, where she then worked as a doctoral student at the Department of Psychology. She returned to her original topic of interest: the formation of identities.

“I remember the University of Jyväskylä as an organisation with low borders. The Department of Psychology had highly skilled teaching and other staff. My time in Jyväskylä was rewarding and richly varied.”

She worked as a project researcher in various projects of the Academy of Finland and visited Belgium on a grant, where she co-authored an article together with some Belgian researchers of identity: “I remember train trips to Jyväskylä filled with work. I would guess that many doctoral students can identify with this memory,” she says.

“I warmly think back of the guidance at the dissertation stage and the training sessions on presenting, for example, the lectio praecursoria. All the support I received for the defence of my dissertation was truly valuable to me!”

Marttinen’s doctoral dissertation was accepted in 2017. She investigated what can go wrong in young people’s identity development. Marttinen also examined what kind of goals young people set then, and how this kind of ambiguous identity is connected with individuals’ ill-being and problems in dealing with communities and society.

Promoting mental wellbeing as part of Nyyti

Alongside her research, Marttinen has been working since 2005 as a coordinator and psychologist in Nyyti, an organization promoting students’ mental wellbeing. The University of Jyväskylä has collaborated her, as Nyyti and JYU have carried out several projects together, such as Myötätuntoa korkeakouluihin (Empathy for higher education institutions) and Yhdessä yhteisöksi (Forming a community together).

“The peer activities between students at JYU, reacting quickly to situations, and flexibility, which I experienced myself as a postgraduate student, show in my current job as well.”

At the moment, Marttinen is working as an expert in the project Ympäristöahdistuksen mieli (Sense of environmental anxiety) (2020–2022), which is being carried out jointly by the Finnish Association for Mental Health, Nyyti and Tunne. Environmental crises create considerable stress, despair and gloom among young people, in particular: “Emotional skills, emotional positivity, facing and accepting emotions help in future-related issues, such as environmental anxiety.”

However, the biggest issue that burdens students at present is the coronavirus pandemic. Remote learning and the lack of community due to the restrictions give rise to loneliness and difficulties with the progress of studies. In addition, exhaustion makes it more difficult to recognise one’s own situation, and the inability to decide between several alternatives inflicts stress.

“A young person’s mind is open and the emerging feelings are therefore intense. They are easily reflected in motivation and identity. Many people get stuck worrying about the future. Can I graduate for a certain occupation? What will happen to the world?”

Marttinen finds hope for the situation from an increased sense of community: “As our individualist culture diminishes, we will find new ways to connect with others. Personal identity becomes clearer when people can reflect who they are, what they want and what they are looking for. A clear vision of the future generates stability and increases wellbeing.”

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