The other pandemic: mental health

Children and young people across the world could feel the impact of Covid-19 on their mental health for many years even after the worst effects of the pandemic are gone, a new UNICEF report warns.

The annual State of the World’s Children 2021: On My Mind this year focuses on promoting, protecting and caring for children's mental health and is a comprehensive look at how children, adolescents and caregivers will be affected for many years into the future.

Early findings from UNICEF and Gallup’s survey Changing Childhood Project previewed in the report show that one in five respondents aged 15–24 admitted to feeling depressed and losing interest in things. The survey interviewed approximately 20,000 children and adolescents from 21 countries as well as 40 and older.

One-third of respondents of a Chinese online survey last year cited in the report reported feeling scared or anxious.

“With nationwide lockdowns and pandemic-related movement restrictions, 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, and it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

According to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)’s 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study, more than one in seven adolescents aged 10–19 globally is estimated to live with a diagnosed mental disorder, some of which include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, and eating disorders.

WHO’s 2019 Global Health Estimates show that almost 46,000 adolescents die from suicide each year.

Here in Nepal, community respondents say that mental health is among the primary concerns of children and adolescents. Nepal Police data shows that 8% of those who died by suicide nationwide in the last five years were minors. Some 20% of suicide ideation and calls to psychological helplines across Nepal are associated with violence, and 25% with economic deprivation.

Statistics show a direct correlation between the lockdown and incidents of gender-based violence, sexual violence, and violence against children in Nepal. There have been 7,141 reported deaths due to suicides nationwide in the last 12 months, up from 6,252 the year before.

Additionally, recent surveys reveal that a significant number of households with children experienced economic and livelihood losses during the 2020 lockdown, and the economic fallout continued into the 2021 lockdown as households experienced job losses, with little to no support from the government.

At least one in every seven children globally has been directly affected by lockdowns. More than 1.6 billion children have lost access to education during the pandemic, and the disruption to routines, recreation, as well as impact on family income and health has left young people with exacerbated mental health issues.

Mental health issues cause long-term harm to children and young people’s education, life outcomes, and earning capacity. Indeed, a new analysis by the London School of Economics indicates that mental disorders leading to disability or death among young people cost economies nearly $390 billion annually.

Despite the epidemic of mental health crisis among young people who are dealing with unaddressed psychological disorders, it doesn’t attract the investment from governments it deserves, and there were significant gaps between mental health needs and funding even before the pandemic.

Indeed, the UNICEF report found that only about 2% of government health budgets are allocated to mental health spending globally.

The report also notes that genetics, environmental factors including parenting, schooling and relationships, exposure to violence or abuse, discrimination, poverty, as well as humanitarian and health crises have an impact on children’s mental health.

And while caregivers, safe school environments, and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental disorders, the stigma surrounding mental health and lack of funding prevent children from accessing required mental health resources.

The report has called on world governments as well as the public and private sector to commit to addressing the stigma surrounding mental health; promoting mental health for children, adolescents and caregivers; taking experiences of children and young people seriously, and identifying and caring for vulnerable groups with psychological conditions.

Said Fore: “Mental health is a part of physical health, we cannot afford to continue to view it as otherwise. For far too long, in rich and poor countries alike, we have seen too little understanding and too little investment in a critical element of maximising every child’s potential. This needs to change.