UNICEF Warns of COVID-19 Effects on Teen Mental Health

Children wait for the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at an inoculation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Sept. 20, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

Survey shows young feel stressed and worried.

PHNOM PENH--Children and adolescents can be greatly affected by COVID-19 for their mental well-being, UNICEF warns in a report released this month.

The report, “The State of the World’s Children 2021; On My Mind: Promoting, Protecting and Caring for children’s mental health,” is a global review of the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers, the UN body says.

“Children in Cambodia like the rest of the world, have faced so many challenges during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Foroogh Foyouzat, UNICEF representative in Cambodia.

“The closure of schools, the dramatic changes in social interactions, and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on Cambodian families have all come at great cost to the mental health of children and young people.

“This global report reveals just how serious and deep the problem is and calls for timely investment and action on mental health. This is about saving lives and saving futures.” 

In Cambodia, UNICEF and its partners have conducted socio-economic impact assessments during the pandemic and monitored the well-being of the Cambodian people.

In the survey, 45% of the teens (between 15 and 19) surveyed said they were concerned about their safety during the outbreak. Another 16% reported feeling stressed or depressed.

In addition, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, the Education Working Group, and UNICEF assessed the need for joint education after all schools closed in 2020.

The assessment surveyed 15,000 people, including students, caregivers, educators, and local authorities, and found that 58% of high school students reported having had mental illness at least once.

In addition, 43% of all survey respondents believed that boys were at higher risk of violence, abuse and exploitation during school closures, while another 36% believed that girls were also at the same high risk.

The report said more than one in seven teenagers aged 10 to 19 worldwide is living with mental illness, while nearly 46,000 teens die from suicide each year. Suicide is one of the five leading causes of death in their age group.

As COVID-19 enters its third year, the impact on the health and mental well-being of children and adolescents continues to worsen. The report indicates that at least one in seven children is directly affected by the lockdown, while more than 1.6 billion children have lost their education.

Disruption of daily routines, education and entertainment, as well as worries about income and family health are making many young people feel scared, angry, and worried about their future, the report found.

A new analysis in UNICEF’s report also shows that mental health problems have contributed to nearly $390 billion in economic losses throughout the world.

“The annual loss in human capital arising from mental health conditions in children aged 0–19 is $387.2 billion (purchasing power parity dollars),” the report indicates. “Of this, $340.2 billion reflects disorders that include anxiety and depression, and $47 billion reflects the loss due to suicide.”

Effort needed to address mental health

UNICEF says there is still a huge gap between mental health needs and funding. Globally, about 2% of governments' health care budget is allocated for mental health, the report found.

While measures such as having a loving caregiver, a safe school environment and positive relationships with friends can help reduce the risk of mental health problems, the report warns that barriers such as fear of discrimination and lack of funds are preventing many children from getting the mental health or support they need.

UNICEF calls on all partner governments in the public and private sectors to take "3C": Commitments, Connections, and Conversations.

This requires the government commitment to invest in the mental health of children and youth from all sectors, not just the health sector. This measure is to support a society-wide approach to promoting, preventing, and caring for mental health.

Moreover, mental health must be talked about to address discrimination, pay close attention to the experiences of children and youth, and integrate policy-making and supporting programs.

The United Nation in Cambodia said that Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) is an essential element of any public health response. Addressing COVID-19's mental health consequences is critical to preventing long-term effects on Cambodians' well-being.

With integrated MHPSS and COVID-19 preventive messages and positive parenting recommendations, a total of 112,611 children and 76,816 parents/caregivers were reached as of August 2021, according to the UN in Cambodia.

In addition, trained community facilitators reached out to 4,805 children and 5,392 parents/caregivers through targeted community-based parenting workshops, peer education and home-based visits.

Through social media, MHPSS messaging and COVID-19 prevention messages reached a total of 195,364 children and 104,651 other people in 2020, and 51 children and 630 adults got specialist mental health help from TPO's psychologists and psychiatrists.

“There is no health without mental health,” Li Ailan, WHO representative to Cambodia, said.

“COVID-19 has threatened mental health in Cambodia, particularly for vulnerable Cambodians, such as migrant workers. WHO and the UN are working to ensure that these vulnerable groups have access to mental and psychosocial support.”

“Now is the time to leverage the progress made through the COVID-19 response and build better mental health systems for the future,” the UN said.

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