At risk: Mental health of our youngstersWednesday, October 06, 2021
Yesterday's launch of UNICEF's State of the World's Children Report 2021 must serve as a quintessential wake-up call to the existing threats to the region's youth as we battle the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Among the disturbing highlights is the rising incidence of mental health concerns among youngsters aged 10 to 19.
Specific to Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), the report notes that nearly one in seven children and adolescents manifest a mental health challenge, with an estimated 15 per cent — some 16 million — being actually diagnosed with a mental disorder as defined by the World Health Organization. This is higher than the global average.
No doubt these numbers reflect the neglect of the holistic needs of our youth down the years, but the situation has been exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic.
Confined at home and confronted with loss, children and young people have faced increased risks to their mental health.
UNICEF goes on to point out that some youngsters “also report psychosocial distress that may not rise to the level of diagnosis, but still disrupts their lives, health, and prospects for the future”.
The risks are particularly high for the region as we have had the longest school closures in the world since the pandemic began, and have lost an average of 153 days of in-person learning, support, and interaction.
Truth is, medical professionals have long been advocating that “children are not small adults” and as such their concerns and experiences must be adequately managed. But this has been battled by a cultural inertia — fuelled by stigma — that is not easily overcome.
“For far too long, children's mental health has been overlooked in Latin America and the Caribbean. Now, COVID-19 has thrust it into the spotlight,” offers up Jean Gough, UNICEF regional director, LAC.
This report, however, cannot be ignored, and must not be neatly filed away until the next 'anniversary' of concern.
Still, its findings are most appropriate to frame recognition of World Mental Health Day scheduled for this Sunday. It draws us to the mat to acknowledge this mounting concern which we have offered mostly lip service.
Yes, there are competing concerns that require immediate attention, but we delay to our own detriment.
While the effects on children's lives are incalculable, said the report, a new analysis by the London School of Economics indicates that lost contribution to economies in the region due to mental disorders that lead to disability or death among young people is estimated at a stirring US$30.6 billion a year.
Such effects of inaction on mental health will be with us long after herd immunity is attained and the vaccinated among us are in the majority.
What UNICEF has done for us is highlight the need to address mental health in our youth population and given us the chance to make intentional steps to treat with it. We would be foolish to miss this opportunity.
Tomorrow, UNICEF will host a regional online event to share the main findings and promote conversations on mental health. It is hoped that our leaders will take notice and devise, fund, and implement the necessary strategies in managing these issues.
Awareness is not enough. There is need for more than the estimated 1.8 per cent of public spending in LAC on mental health management. We must commit to action.