Almost one in five 15- to 24-year-olds around the world say they often feel depressed, according to a new UN report.
The children’s agency, Unicef, and Gallup conducted interviews in 21 countries during the first six months of the year.
Almost all children across the globe have been affected by lockdowns, school closures and disruption to routines. Coupled with concern for family income and health, many young people feel afraid, angry, and uncertain about the future, said the report released on Tuesday.
Almost a third of children in Cameroon said they often felt depressed or had little interest in doing things, while one in five children in the UK, and one in 10 children in Ethiopia and Japan felt this way.
The findings do not reflect levels of diagnosed depression but show how children and young people have been feeling during the Covid-19 pandemic. A lack of data gathering and routine monitoring meant the picture of young people’s mental health status and needs in most countries was extremely limited, said the report.
The report highlighted how more than one in seven 10- to 19-year-olds (13%) are estimated to live with a diagnosed mental health disorder – 89 million boys and 77 million girls.
“It has been a long, long 18 months for all of us – especially children. With nationwide lockdowns and pandemic-related movement restrictions, children have spent indelible years of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, play – key elements of childhood,” said Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director.
“The impact is significant, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Even before the pandemic, far too many children were burdened under the weight of unaddressed mental health issues,” she said.
As the pandemic heads into its third year and amid concern about its impact on the mental health of children and young people, the report also revealed that one child dies every 11 minutes from suicide.
Each year an estimated 45,800 adolescents die from suicide, which is the fifth most prevalent cause of death for children aged 10 to 19. For 15- to 19-year-olds, it is the fourth most common cause of death, after road injury, tuberculosis and interpersonal violence. For girls in this age group, it is the third most common cause of death, and the fourth for boys, said the report.
“It’s really bad,” said Ann Willhoite, a mental health and psychosocial support specialist at Unicef. “If you look at the statistics compared to other issues, it’s shocking and concerning this is not being shouted about more.”
Diagnosed mental health problems, including anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia, can significantly harm children and young people’s health, education and future, said the report.
Untreated mental health problems also have an impact on world economies. A new analysis by the London School of Economics, included in the report, showed that the economic price of such neglect is £387.2bn (about £285bn) a year.
Despite demand for support, government expenditure on mental health globally accounts for 2.1% of the total amount spent on health in general. In some of the world’s poorest countries, governments spend less than $1 a person treating mental health conditions.
The number of psychiatrists who specialise in treating children and adolescents is fewer than 0.1 per 100,000 in all but high-income countries, where the figure is 5.5 per 100,000.
Investment in promoting and protecting – different to treating and caring for children facing serious challenges – mental health is extremely low, said the report.
Lack of investment means people working in a number of areas, including primary healthcare, education and social services, are not able to address mental health issues.
“Mental health is a part of physical health – we cannot afford to continue to view it as otherwise,” said Fore. “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 maximising every child’s potential. This needs to change.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.