UNICEF urges focus on mental health issues in children, adolescents post-COVID-19

WITH an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of adolescents experiencing mental health issues in any one year globally, and one in four children said to have a caregiver with a mental disorder, a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) official says it is imperative that great focus is given to mental health disorders in children and adolescents post-COVID-19.

“Even before the pandemic we have seen the rising impacts of mental ill-health on children and adolescents,” UNICEF Adolescent Health Specialist Dr Joanna Lai argued during a recent discussion hosted by The University of the West Indies COVID-19 Task Force.

“Based on the most recent global health estimates, anxiety disorder was the fourth leading cause of disability among 10 to 19 year olds, and for Latin America and the Caribbean anxiety disorder was actually the second leading cause of disability for 10 to 14 year olds and childhood behavioural disorder was the first,” added Dr Lai who was one of several panellists at the virtual discussion themed ‘Mind the Education Gap: Schooling in the Caribbean During COVID-19’.

Underlining the gravity of the situation, she said, “Suicide is globally the fifth-leading cause of death among 10 to 19 year olds, and for the Latin America/ Caribbean region it is the third-leading cause. As we have seen, impacts of poor mental health are not only immediate on children and adolescents, but there are also longer-term health and also socio-economic implications, where 50 per cent of adolescent mental health conditions start by the mid-teens and 75 per cent of mental health conditions among adults start by the mid-20s. Also, it’s been estimated that based on calculations of loss of productivity, mental ill-health will cost the global economy US$16 trillion by 2030.”

The adolescent health specialist, however, said despite the alarming statistics “there are still major gaps and missed opportunities in meeting the mental health needs of this population around the globe and particularly in low- and middle-income countries where most adolescents with mental health conditions do not actually receive the care they need and there is continued underinvestment in promotion, prevention, and early intervention for this population group”.

“When we think about what young people are facing during this pandemic it really would become clear why there would be long- and short-term implications. In COVID-19 I think all of us understand that lives have been disrupted, but those disruptions are felt more significantly for children and adolescents because of the rapid pace of development and growth they are in,” she pointed out.

These disruptions, she said, have occurred in terms of diets, physical activity, sleeping patterns and education.

“Throughout the pandemic, studies across the world have shown disruptions in these areas. Data have shown that up to 370 million children would have missed out on nutritious meals because of school closures while 44 million children may have gone hungry in 2020,” Dr Lai pointed out.

Chair of the COVID-19 task force Professor Clive Landis pressed for UNICEF to break out the data for the Caribbean instead of lumping it with the rest of the region.

“Have you been able to find or disaggregate some of the data you quoted about students in Latin America and the Caribbean being without schooling? Because very often in the Caribbean, we are small, but we would like to be included and disaggregated in data. We are very small when it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean and sometimes we are lumped in the Americas. It really would help if the Caribbean was disaggregated so we would know what relates to us,” Professor Landis said.

Responding, Dr Lai said UNICEF was in fact moving in that direction.

“It is exactly what we are working on right now,” she said. “It is actually an issue raised by young people we are working with on a data dashboard. We have an adolescent health data dashboard which you can disaggregate by country at this point. The regional profile currently is Latin America and the Caribbean but we are going to disaggregate it for Latin America separately and the Caribbean separately.”

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