Children and young people could feel the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and well-being for many years to come, UNICEF has warned in a recent report.
According to the State of the World’s Children 2021 report. On my mind: promoting, protecting and caring for children’s mental health, UNICEF’s most comprehensive analysis of the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers in the 21st century, even before COVID-19 children and young people were bearing the burden of mental illnesses without the support of significant investments to combat them.
According to the latest available estimates, worldwide, over one in seven adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 live with a diagnosed mental disorder. Almost 46,000 teenagers commit suicide annually, suicide being among the top five causes of death among this age group. At the same time, major discrepancies are still observed between the needs related to mental health and the funds allocated to mental health. The report indicates that, worldwide, mental health expenses are allocated a percentage of approximately 2% of the public budgets dedicated to health.
“It was an extremely long 18 months for all of us – especially for the children. Due to national quarantines and travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, children have spent indelible years of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, play – key elements of childhood itself,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “The impact is significant, representing only the tip of the iceberg. Even before the pandemic, far too many children were burdened by the weight of ignored mental health issues. Governments are investing too little in addressing these critical needs. Not enough importance is given to the relationship between mental health and the results obtained during life”.
Children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
Indeed, the pandemic has left its mark. According to the first results of an international survey carried out by UNICEF and Gallup among children and adults in 21 countries – results previewed in the State of the World’s Children 2021 – on average, one in five young people aged 15-24 surveyed in the survey said that often feels depressed or has low interest in any kind of activity.
On the threshold of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on the mental health and well-being of children and young people continues to weigh heavily. According to the latest data provided by UNICEF, globally, at least seven children were directly affected by the quarantine measures, while more than 1.6 billion children suffered educational losses. The interruption of routine, education, recreational activities, as well as worries about income and family health make many young people experience feelings of fear, anger and concern for their future. For example, in an online survey conducted in China in early 2020, cited in The State of the World’s Children, about a third of respondents said they were gripped by fear or anxiety.
The cost to society
Diagnosed mental health conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, conduct disorders, depression, eating disorders, intellectual disabilities and schizophrenia, can seriously affect children and young people’s health, education, life outcomes and ability to – earn a living.
Even though the impact on children’s lives is incalculable, new analysis by the London School of Economics, included in the report, indicates that the loss of economic contribution due to mental disorders leading to disability or death among young people is estimated to be around 390 billion dollars annually.
The report notes that, from the earliest days of life, a combination of genetics, experiences and environmental factors, including parental care, schooling, quality of relationships, exposure to violence or abuse, discrimination, poverty, humanitarian and health crises such as COVID -19, shapes and affects the mental health of children throughout their lives.
Although protective factors such as caring, a safe school environment and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental disorders, the report warns that a number of important barriers, including stigma and lack of funding, prevent too much many children to enjoy good mental health or to access the support they need.
The State of the World’s Children 2021 urges governments and public and private sector partners to engage, communicate and act to promote the mental health of all children, adolescents and carers, to protect those in need help and to provide care to the most vulnerable people, including by:
• Urgent investments in the mental health of children and adolescents, made intersectorally, not only in the field of health, addressing prevention, promotion and care in an integrated way at the level of the whole society.
• Integrating and expanding evidence-based interventions in the health, education and social protection sectors – including parenting education programs that promote appropriate child care models that respond to the child’s needs and that support the mental health of the parent and the person responsible for the child; supporting mental health through schools through quality services and positive relationships.
• Communicating about mental illnesses, by addressing stigma, by promoting a better understanding of mental health by treating the experiences of children and young people seriously.
“Mental health is a component of physical health – we can’t afford to see it any other way,” said Fore. “We have noticed for too long that in rich and poor countries alike there is too little understanding and too little investment in a critical component for maximizing the potential of each child. This has to change.”