International Youth Day: Focusing on Mental Health

By Nicole Goldin and Katherine Perry

IYD_2014August 12th is International Youth Day, and offers a time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing global youth.  This year’s theme, “Youth and Mental Health,” brings the often sidelined issue of mental health to the fore of the global health and youth development conversation. The United Nations recently estimated that a shocking 20 percent of global youth experience mental health challenges. Leaders are taking note.  In Africa for example, recognizing that mental health is a serious issue, and accounts for “a huge burden of disease and disability, and where in general less than 1 percent  of the already small health budgets are spent on these disorders,” medical experts from several countries recently published a Declaration on Mental Health in Africa in an effort to promote access to services.

Facilitating better mental health among youth is a complex challenge, as mental health is rooted in both biology and circumstance. A recent study in the United Kingdom found that the long-term unemployment crisis has had harmful effects on youths’ mental wellbeing. In a survey conducted by the Prince’s Trust, 40 percent of jobless youth “faced symptoms of mental illness…as a direct result of being unemployed.”  At the same time, the social and economic costs of underinvestment in youth mental health services are large; the United States’ National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that “70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also have mental health disorders.”

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental illness and seeking assistance has further compromised youth mental health outcomes. For example, while 20 percent of Australian youth suffer from mental illness, only 60 percent of those youth seek assistance. In this way, knowledge gaps and unequal access to services further compromise better youth mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

Recognizing the importance of mental and emotional health to young people’s overall health and success, we included indicators on perceived levels of stress and self-harm among youth in the inaugural Global Youth Wellbeing Index released in April.  Interestingly we see that youth in high income countries face noteworthy challenges with respect to mental health. Incorporating mental health performance metrics into the index significantly effects the ranking of several countries.  Poor performance along the mental health indicators sees Sweden’s rank to fall down to 7th, significantly lower than the 2nd overall youth wellbeing rank given before considering mental health.  Similarly, the United States drops to 12th place in the health ranking due to high levels of youth stress and self-harm. Youth in South Korea, Japan, Russia, and India also display weaker scores on these indicators.

Perhaps surprisingly, lower and lower middle income countries fare better on these indicators; for example, youth in Kenya express lower stress and youth in Indonesia have fewer instances of self-harm as compared to some rich nation counterparts. Importantly, we also found correlations between mental health and other domain indicators, such as youth employment.

To advance social and economic opportunity, mental and emotional health among young people should be prioritized in policy and program planning. In particular, more attention needs to be paid to providing marginalized youth with necessary support and care– youth with physical disabilities, and refugee youth all require additional support.  With continued investment in basic health infrastructure, as well as data driven efforts to identify areas of need, we can mobilize resources to promote mental health and integrated well-being.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  While there have undoubtedly been significant advances in global health outcomes over the past two decades, mental and emotional health remain stigmatized and marginalized issues.  These challenges need to be brought into the mainstream health dialogue; it is a great opportunity to improve young people’s lives and alter life trajectories.

Nicole Goldin is a senior associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

Katherine Perry is a researcher with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

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