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In its flagship report ‘ The State of World’s Children 2021′ which was launched on Tuesday, UNICEF has warned that children and young people in India could feel the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and well-being for many years to come. The UNICEF report has taken a comprehensive look at the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers in the 21st century pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on children’s mental health. According to a survey conducted by UNICEF and Gallup in early 2021 with 20,000 children and adults in 21 countries, children in India seem reticent to seek support for mental stress. Throughout the Covid pandemic, children have had limited access to support from social services due to lockdown measures. The disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people feeling afraid, angry, and concerned for their future. The UNICEF report says that as the COVID-19 Pandemic heads into its third year, the impact on children and young people’s mental health continues to weigh heavily.

Highlights of the report:

  • Around the world, mental disorders are a significant and often ignored cause of suffering that interfere with children’s and young people’s health and education and their ability to reach their full potential.
  • It is estimated that more than 13 per cent of adolescents aged 10–19 live with a diagnosed mental disorder as defined by the World Health Organization.
  • Anxiety and depression make up about 40 per cent of these diagnosed mental disorders
  • An estimated 45,800 adolescents die from suicide each year, or more than 1 person every 11 minutes.
  • Suicide is the fifth most prevalent cause of death for adolescents aged 10–19
  • Despite widespread demand for responses that promote, protect and care for children’s mental health, investment remains negligible.
  • Mental health is widely stigmatized and misunderstood: It is, in fact, a positive state of well-being and a foundation that allows children and young people to build their futures.
  • Mental health is a basic right and essential for achieving global objectives, including the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Schools and learning environments can provide opportunities to support mental health, but can also expose children to risks, including bullying and excessive exam pressure.
  • Socioeconomic and cultural factors in the wider world, as well as humanitarian crises and events
  • Evaluations of parenting programmes indicate that they help deepen attachments between caregiver and child, reduce harsh parenting
  • The State of the World’s Children 2021 concludes by calling for commitment, communication and action to promote good mental health for every child, protect vulnerable children and care for children facing the greatest challenges.

Children’s mental health during COVID-19:

  • The pandemic has taken its toll. According to early findings a median of 1 in 5 young people aged 15–24 surveyed said they often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things.
  • As COVID-19 heads into its third year, the impact on children and young people’s mental health and well-being continues to weigh heavily.
  • At least 1 in 7 children has been directly affected by lockdowns, while more than 1.6 billion children have suffered some loss of education.
  • The disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people feeling afraid, angry, and concerned for their future.

Cost to society:

  • Diagnosed mental disorders, including ADHD, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, depression, eating disorders, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia, can significantly harm children and young people’s health, education, life outcomes, and earning capacity.
  • While the impact on children’s lives is incalculable, a new analysis by the London School of Economics in the report indicates that lost contribution to economies due to mental disorders that lead to disability or death among young people is estimated at nearly $390 billion a year.

Protective factors:

  • The mix of genetics, experience and environmental factors from the earliest days, including parenting, schooling, quality of relationships, exposure to violence or abuse, discrimination, poverty, humanitarian crises, and health emergencies such as COVID-19, all shape and effect children’s mental health throughout their lifetime.
  • While protective factors, such as loving caregivers, safe school environments, and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental disorders, the report warns that significant barriers, including stigma and lack of funding, are preventing too many children from experiencing positive mental health or accessing the support they need.
  • Governments, and public and private sector partners, to commit, communicate and act to promote mental health for all children, adolescents and caregivers, protect those in need of help, and care for the most vulnerable, including:
  • Urgent investment in child and adolescent mental health across sectors, not just in health, to support a whole-of-society approach to prevention, promotion and care.
  • Integrating and scaling up evidence-based interventions across health, education and social protection sectors – including parenting programmes that promote responsive, nurturing caregiving and support parent and caregiver mental health; and ensuring schools support mental health through quality services and positive relationships.
  • Breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, through addressing stigma and promoting better understanding of mental health and taking seriously the experiences of children and young people.

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 maximizing every child’s potential. This needs to change.