Robust data on youth mental health can better inform targeted intervention
There is very little data on the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people, especially minority groups like refugees. Little is known about the risk factors for this cohort or the availability and access to quality care. Researchers must come forward to fill this gap as a first step to developing effective interventions
Mental wellbeing is paramount for a successful and happy life. Since the release of the World Happiness Report and the interesting revelations on what determines happiness and how it is measured, policymakers are now focused on ways to increase happiness and wellbeing.
Young people pose a particularly interesting demographic as they are not only the future and current workforce, and drivers of political and economic activity, but also disproportionately affected by mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and substance abuse among others due to disparities in access to and quality of mental health services. Because of their age and stage, young people are often assumed to be in the prime of their lives with little to no worries. This often leads parents and guardians to overlook the mental health challenges young people may be facing.
Depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. Globally, one in seven 10- to 19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder. What’s more, it’s estimated that half of all mental health disorders in adulthood start by age 14, but most cases are undetected and untreated.
One major reason for this is the lack of data. In fact, available data on the mental health of teenagers covers only 7% of the global age-group population. Moreover, more than 100 countries, primarily low- and middle-income, do not have any data on adolescent mental health. For young adults aged 20-35, the situation is worse—there is little or no data worldwide.
We argue that robust data on the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people, as well as risk and preventative factors, is vital for governments to identify priority areas for targeted intervention.
One often overlooked consequence of lack of quality data is the effect of climate change on Small Island Development States (SIDS) in the Caribbean. SIDS have been acknowledged as being on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Some SIDS will face increasing drought as global temperatures rise, directly impacting food security.
The resulting hardships experienced by the people, especially vulnerable communities that include young people, can harm mental health. After or before a disaster, the impacts on mental health could range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, ranging from anxiety and sleep disturbance to depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts. The aftereffects of the climate event are felt in their everyday lives. Having to cope with, understand and respond appropriately to climate change and its implications can place immense mental stress on their functioning.
However, the literature on this link between climate change and mental illness is lacking. While this may be due to the complexity and novelty of the issue, it must not be overlooked.
Another looming case is that of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum seekers. They are among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups worldwide. Unfortunately, health services provided to refugees often fall far short. This is especially so for mental health, which is overlooked both due to stigma and prioritisation of other basic needs.
In particular, lack of quality data at the population level on the impact of displacement impedes an adequate response to the mental health needs of refugees in general and young refugees in particular. Missing data includes information on the provision of mental health services to refugees, the effect of the varied migration experience of refugees on their mental health, and how youth as a cohort are affected by the displacement experience.
Young refugees who have been forcefully displaced from their homes experience overlapping hardships related to uncertainty about the future and the traumatic experiences that accompany displacement, putting them at increased risk for mental health conditions. Within these overlaying hardships, a spectrum of trauma inflicted by different experiences and interpersonal differences exists, and there is a need to capture data that reflects this spectrum to address more effectively the mental health needs of young refugees and create systems of care aligned to their unique social and cultural contexts.
Towards targeted solutions
Improved data on the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people, including the specific experiences of minority groups like refugees, the exposure to risk factors, and the access to and quality of interventions, is an essential step towards developing targeted initiatives and solutions.
Therefore, we call on academia to strive more to investigate and highlight the needs of young people affected by mental health conditions. We also call on governments and research institutes to support such data acquisition and analysis to inform policy and targeted approaches for young people affected by and at risk of mental health disorders.
In the same way that climate justice requires tailored approaches to individual situations, ‘mental health justice’ demands that policymakers address the unique root causes of youth mental health challenges, backed by data-driven intervention. One size will not fit all. We need improved research and interventions now.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Re:solve Global Health.
Deena Al-Zou'bi, Bruno Helman, Pierre Cooke Jr and Dina Tadros from NCD Child, a global multi-stakeholder coalition championing the rights and needs of children, adolescents and young people who are living with or at risk of developing non-communicable diseases.