Oct 13th, 2021, 09:20 AM

UNICEF Highlights Children's Mental Health

By Leigh Lucaßen
Image credit: Unsplash/Sinitta Leunen
A new study reveals that 13 percent of adolescents worldwide suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition.
Warning: The following text addresses sensitive topics such as mental health conditions, childhood abuse, and suicide.

On October 5, 2021, UNICEF published a new study on the mental well-being of children around the globe. Data indicates that 13 percent of children and adolescents worldwide live with a diagnosable mental health condition, including conduct, attention, anxiety, and depressive disorders, as well as substance abuse and personality disorders.

The study also highlights suicide as a leading cause of death among children aged 10 to 19, with an estimated 45,800 adolescents taking their own lives in a year - one every 11 minutes. As the report states, these numbers are a result of a public misunderstanding of mental health and a lack of action taken to promote and protect children's mental health and existing stigmas across different countries, cultures, and communities alongside other factors. 

The common understanding of mental health is negative. It is generally associated with mental illness, something many believe does not relate to them. However mental health, quite like physical health, is something everybody has. The World Health Organization defines mental health as, "A state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."

Mental health, therefore, is not the absence of mental illness, but rather a positive state of mental wellness in which an individual can meet their full potential. 

Image credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

However, as data shows, 13 percent of children and adolescents are stifled in their ability to fulfill this potential. Gender and geography play a contributing factor here. According to UNICEF, boys between 10 and 19 have a higher prevalence rate and number of disorders than adolescent girls.

East Asia, Pacific, and South Asia regions have the highest numbers of common mental disorders in adolescents and stigma still contributes to the silent suffering of many. The prevalence, however, is highest in the Middle East, North Africa, North America, and Western Europe. Further, anxiety and depressive disorders are the two most commonly identified mental disorders in children and teenagers at an estimated 40 percent. 

Suicide resulting from mental health conditions is also the fifth leading cause of death in adolescents aged 10 to 19. In the age group 15 to 19, it is the fourth leading cause preceded only by road injury, tuberculosis, and interpersonal violence.

Here too, gender and geography have an influence on the statistics. In Central Asia and Eastern Europe, suicide is the leading cause of death between the ages of 15 to 19, and globally more boys than girls will take their own lives each year. 

However, the available numbers are only estimates. It is likely that the true numbers are much higher, as suicide is historically considered underreported

Image credit: Unsplash/Yuris Alhumaydy

The state of a person's mental health is determined by multiple factors. The UNICEF study establishes three spheres in which a child may encounter mental health risks: the world of the child, the world around the child, and the world at large. 

The world of the child is for the most part influenced by the parents and caregivers. Risk factors include malnutrition, neglect, caregiver substance abuse, intimate partner violence between parents, or other adverse childhood experiences. This sphere is of particular importance, as the first decade of a child's life can have long-lasting effects on its neurological development. 

The world around the child is defined by access to education, recreational activities, and other social engagements. The primary force of influence remains parents and caregivers.

Finally, as children age the world at large gains more influence, in particular as this sphere lies beyond the control of caregivers or the child itself. Risks include poverty, war and conflict, humanitarian crises, and pandemics such as COVID-19.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many risk factors for children increased. Lockdowns and school closures disrupted the routines of most, especially in countries where access to digital technology is limited. Lockdowns also increasingly put children at risk of domestic child abuse, as well as sexual exploitation and gender-based violence.

Economic insecurity also played an important part in children's mental well-being during the pandemic. Research in Germany found that 48 percent of children from economically insecure backgrounds felt lonely during the first lockdown, 44 percent expressed excessive anxieties and worries, and 39 percent displayed hyperactive behavior. The long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health are yet to be seen.

Image credit: Unsplash/Engin Akyurt

Other risk factors in adolescence include discrimination, bullying, loneliness, substance abuse, child marriage, and intimate partner violence. If risk factors are not mitigated, they can manifest into long-lasting mental health conditions which can limit children's potential, hopes, and dreams, and in the most extreme cases cost their lives.

Children's mental and physical health is protected as a human right under the Convention on the Right of the Child, but this right is seldom realized. UNICEF states that, "Children and young people with mental health conditions must not only be treated as patients but as individuals with rights - individuals who, in accordance with their evolving capacities, can play an active role in their care through direct or supported decision making. Mental health legislation based on the rights of individuals with mental health conditions is essential."

Childhood mental illness can extend way into adulthood if left unaddressed.

If you are struggling with a mental health condition or if you need to talk to someone, please know that you can find help at AUP or with one of the multiple international mental health hotlines.