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Covid impact on children’s mental health ‘tip of the iceberg’

Secondary school students wait for class at a school in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 2021. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/ADI WEDA)

Covid-19 has taken a toll on the mental health of millions of children worldwide, but this is “just the tip of the iceberg” of the struggle faced by many young people, a new report from Unicef warned on Tuesday.

Even before the pandemic, children and adolescents bore the burden of mental health conditions which governments around the world have failed to address, according to the UN children agency’s State of the World’s Children report.

More than one in seven adolescents aged 10 to 19 globally – around 86 million young people – live with a diagnosed mental health disorder, while almost 46,000 die from suicide every year, which is the fourth leading cause of death for the demographic. That equates to around one child every 11 minutes.

But the report highlights significant shortfalls in funding to meet children’s mental health needs, with just around two per cent of government health budgets allocated to mental health spending on average.

‘The tip of the iceberg’. “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 itself,” said Unicef’s executive director Henrietta Fore in the report. “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.”

“It is an iceberg we have been ignoring for far too long, and unless we act, it will continue to have disastrous results for children and societies long after the pandemic is over,” she added.

Spending on mental health is even lower in poorer countries, where less than $1 per person is spent treating conditions and there is a shortage of child and adolescent mental health professionals.

“Not enough importance is being placed on the relationship between mental health and future life outcomes,” said Fore.

The impact of the pandemic. Unicef conducted a study of children and adults in 21 countries to assess the extent of the pandemic’s toll. On average, one in five young people said they often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things, with displaced children those most affected.

A study of children in China in 2020 cited by the report found that one third of respondents reported feeling scared or anxious. Worldwide, at least one in seven children have been directly affected by lockdowns, and 1.6 million children have suffered some loss of education, according to Unicef.

But as the pandemic enters its third year, the report warned that the economic and social toll of the mental health crisis in children will be substantial if left unaddressed. New analysis by the London School of Economics found that mental disorders are costing the global economy nearly $390bn a year. “The cost in terms of how it affects real lives, however, is incalculable,” said the report.

A call to action. The report calls for governments to step up funding to promote and protect the mental health of children and young people, as well as work to break the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“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.”