UNICEF has released its annual State of the World’s Children report, with the 2021 findings focused on mental health and institutional support (or lack thereof) for children globally.
The report essentially unpacks the importance of supporting teenagers and adolescents with mental health disorders, placing particular emphasis on the lack of action from governments and institutions around the world. UNICEF found that an estimated 45,800 adolescents die by suicide each year, for instance, with suicide being the fifth most prevalent cause of death for people aged 10-19. For young girls, it is the third most common cause of death.
According to the report, one in seven adolescents (aged 10-19) live with a diagnosed mental health disorder. This is 13 percent of adolescents worldwide. The rate of diagnosed disorders is highest in the Middle East, North Africa, North America, and Western Europe.
One in five young people (aged 15-24) reported feeling depressed or experiencing little interest in doing things, according to a joint survey by UNICEF and Gallup. In the United States, 24 percent of those surveyed reported feeling this way, while 20 percent of adolescents in the United Kingdom said the same.
The report additionally reveals that there is a grave lack of investment in resolving mental health issues. This is true for multiple sectors, including primary health care, education, and social protection. The problem is also deeply compounded by socio-economic and cultural factors, as well as humanitarian crises. Serious mental health conditions can also linked to poverty, harmful gender norms, and being on the frontlines of humanitarian events.
With the findings of the report, UNICEF is pushing for urgent action when it comes to understanding and uplifting mental health support for young people. Their call is for commitment, communication, and action, a three-step protocol for promoting good mental health and protecting vulnerable children worldwide.
"[Mental health] underlies the human capacity to think, feel, learn, work, build meaningful relationships and contribute to communities and the world. It's an intrinsic part of individual health and a foundation for healthy communities and nations," the report reads.
Interventions and institutional support from schools, home environment, and humanitarian settings can help to promote and protect mental health. This includes parenting practices, which the report says are crucial for a child's mental health. For instance, the world's least developed countries see 83 percent of children experiencing "violent discipline" from caregivers. The need for parental nurture and supportive parenting is therefore fundamental.
Stigma is also a major roadblock in the journey to receiving adequate help and openly discussing mental health issues. With the persistence of stigma in communities, says UNICEF, young people are discouraged from seeking treatment for mental health conditions.
"A mind filled with shame cannot grow"
Arlo Parks, BRIT Award- and Mercury Award-winning singer, commented on the report and the role of stigma in preventing mental health support. She says that she has seen friends succumb to mental illnesses and others find strength in supportive environments.
"A mind filled with shame cannot grow and that is why I believe that deconstructing stigma, making mental health support accessible and building structures to support people, in particular vulnerable and marginalized groups, is essential," says Parks.
Other barriers include inadequate financial resources, inadequate human resources, and lack of collaboration between sectors.
The UNICEF report also included its work with BTS, a collaboration that has resulted in the LOVE MYSELF campaign. The campaign works to end violence and improve young people's mental health and wellbeing. BTS, along with record label BIGHIT MUSIC, have pledged $1 million to the campaign.
The emphasis on young people's mental health, particularly with the #LoveMyself campaign, comes amidst the pandemic, which exacerbated feelings of isolation and frustration for adolescents worldwide. With high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide amongst children worldwide, sensitive community-based responses – as recommended by UNICEF – are necessary to protect young people.
However, the report did also touch upon resilience — the inherent resilience within people which supported them through the pandemic. A growing understanding of resilience was illustrated in the report through case studies, many of which had young people showing determination and fostering strength through adaptive practices. For instance, the authors of the The Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission Mental Health Task Force, which UNICEF cites, found that the young people and young mother they surveyed "weathered the pandemic’s psychological challenges" well.
"People are more resilient than they themselves realize," the report concluded.