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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

A Finnish Researcher Studies the Loneliness of the Arctic

Anna Reetta Rönkä, a PhD candidate at the University of Oulu, says that Arctic nations can do more to help support the mental well-being of their northern residents.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The northern lights flicker near Utsjoki, Finland.Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Kelvin Lim

The topic of Anna Reetta Rönkä’s research, loneliness, is both a universal experience and one particular to the Arctic, where feelings of isolation may be reinforced by the realities of dwelling in a remote, far-flung community. Young people may have few peers in smaller communities, yet moving to larger urban centers presents its own challenges in establishing new social ties.

Rönkä, a PhD candidate at the University of Oulu, Finland, is focusing in particular on loneliness among adults in the north of her home country. “When it comes to loneliness and other related, negative, socioemotional issues like violence, substance abuse and suicide, the Arctic area represents an especially fragile context,” Rönkä told Arctic Deeply.

Rönkä contends, however, that research can help point to potential solutions. Much of it comes down to creating a safe environment at schools. Her upcoming PhD thesis found most loneliness among Finland’s northern youth is tied to being bullied for not fitting in. “Teaching pupils at a young age compassion, respect and basic social skills, as well as allowing everyone to live up to their full potential without somebody else putting them down, are thus central in loneliness alleviation,” she says.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Anna Reetta Rönkä as part of our series focused on emerging leaders in the region.

Arctic Deeply: What are you working on at the moment?

Anna Reetta Rönkä: I work at the University of Oulu. I am finalizing my PhD research, which explores experience of loneliness from childhood to young adulthood among young adults born in northern Finland. My study is multidisciplinary and utilizes mixed methods approach. The data comes from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1986 (sample of 9,432), which is a prospective longitudinal study collected from the two northernmost provinces in Finland (Oulu and Lapland). In my study, I use both survey data and quantitative methods as well as interview data (sample of 35) and qualitative methods, when exploring loneliness. I study how loneliness is experienced and felt, what kind of associations, causes and consequences loneliness has with different socioemotional, contextual and health and well-being factors, and how the experience fluctuates over the life course of young adults.

Arctic Deeply: Who inspires you in your field?

Rönkä: My work is multidisciplinary and can be located in several fields, including health studies, gender studies, education and youth studies, and it is related to Arctic research. I am inspired by my three supervisors from the University of Oulu: Professor Arja Rautio (Arctic Health), docent and lecturer Vappu Sunnari (women´s and gender studies) and Professor Emerita Anja Taanila (Center for Life Course Health Research). These three women have inspired me scholarly and have guided and encouraged me in multiple ways throughout the years. Working with them in a multidisciplinary group has been important in order to understand complex health and well-being issues, and social phenomena in the circumpolar Arctic areas.

Arctic Deeply: What motivates you?

Rönkä: We are social beings and have a need for meaningful, reciprocal and positive social relationships, but about 10 percent of children and adolescents experience involuntary loneliness and for example do not have anyone who they can share their thoughts and feel connected with. Loneliness is a very severe negative, involuntary experience, and my study and other studies alike have shown how it can be linked with multiple well-being and health problems including depression, hopelessness, sense of non-belonging, exclusion, school violence and suicidal behavior. Besides being subjective, loneliness is also a relational and highly sociocultural issue and, for example, social norms in a given society influence the experience. I am motivated to work on the topic because I believe that research findings can be turned into solutions for preventing and alleviating loneliness, especially when working in collaboration with professionals from different fields. It is not an easy task, but on the other hand, even small things in a school context can ease the experience of loneliness.

Arctic Deeply: Has there been a defining moment in your career?

Rönkä: Receiving a research grant for 18 months from the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters was a defining moment, as it gave me reassurance regarding the relevance of my work and importance of the topic, and enabled me to do research full time. Another defining moment was my first conference trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, where I attended the International Congress of Circumpolar Health in 2012. During the meeting, I learned a lot about the Arctic context and realized the special challenges and opportunities Arctic areas and its people are facing, and how important it is to do research in that context.

Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now and what do you need to make that vision happen?

Rönkä: When it comes to loneliness and other related negative socioemotional issues like violence, substance abuse and suicide, the Arctic area represents an especially fragile context. Population density is typically low, young people might not have any peers in their age group in the small communities and urbanization has further emptied many villages. Relocation may increase loneliness as establishing new social relations might be difficult in new contexts.

I hope that 10 years from now, the Arctic is a good, viable and healthy place for young people where they can have a sense of belonging and can live happy, safe, meaningful and sustainable lives. In order to achieve that vision, I believe enhancing and investing in individual and community health and well-being is essential, as it is to advocate for healthy, respectful, equal relationships. Moreover, it would be important for meaningful educational and occupational opportunities in the area to exist. Thus we need increased collaboration between Arctic people and academia, as well as with the political, business and industry sectors, in order to sustain viable communities in the Arctic.

This Q&A is part of our series on young leaders in the Arctic. Read more:

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