How can we transform the mental health care system for today’s youth?

The mental wellbeing of children and young people is at the forefront of mind - and UNICEF and partners have a design plan to strengthen healthcare systems to meet the demand.

War, cyberbullying, discrimination, climate change. Children all around the world are facing a multitude of issues that are negatively impacting their mental health – and the statistics prove it. One in seven of 10-19-year-olds globally experience mental health disorders, with suicide being among the top five causes of death for the age group.

A recent large-scale study surveyed 150,000 people across 29 nations and estimated that one in every two of us will develop a mental health issue in our lifetime. This is a worldwide problem that affects all races, economic backgrounds and belief systems.

Despite these statistics, mental health care support is not where it should be. On average, less than 2% of national health budgets are allocated to mental health support. In low-income countries, this drops to less than 1%.

UNICEF Office of Innovation, the UNICEF country office in Nigeria, and partners are challenging the status quo of the mental health care sector with a design approach called “systems innovation,” which aims to revamp the way an existing system operates through collaboration and forward-thinking.

Shaping the future of mental health

To establish an inclusive mental health care system that anticipates, prepares, responds, recovers and supports requires a systems design that recognizes a diverse range of relationships and perspectives.

In Nigeria, UNICEF has been working with youth, government officials and medical experts to transform the current system into something that tackles mental wellbeing head-on through innovative approaches. 

Through a design-led approach, together they have established five outcomes called for by the adolescents of Nigeria. These carefully planned outcomes will navigate the emergence of a stronger mental healthcare delivery system that better serves the needs of young people.

  • I CAN SHAPE: Young people need the opportunity to influence how their mental health care is approached. “Across the value chain, young people have a role to play,” says Dr Tunde Ojo, National Mental Health Program Coordinator. “They are leading advocacy, service delivery, peer support, innovations, especially digital innovations, and research.”

Global data suggests that the mental health tech space is the largest growing sector for startups, so there’s a huge opportunity for youth involvement. Engaging more young people in the local tech entrepreneur ecosystem helps co-design and develop mental health tech solutions that are curated to address the specific challenges their generation is facing.

Technology is a promising tool concerning health system strengthening. Creating efficient first response/screening systems using AI chatbots and immersive remote therapy tools like VR-enabled care to address distance as a barrier to access are just two forward-thinking solutions currently being explored.

  • I KNOW MY WORTH: “Teaching youth positive coping mechanisms will reduce the long-term effects of mental health issues,” says a clinical psychologist from the Centre for Population Health Initiatives, an independent, indigenous non-profit organization that creates health and development programs targeted at vulnerable and marginalized people.

Developing tech-based upskilling platforms to train teachers, counselors and social workers in identifying and supporting young people to develop coping mechanisms would be a way to see success in this area, suggests a recent report by UNICEF; especially in resource-constrained settings where mental health professional cadres are limited. 

  • I AM HEARD: To truly listen (and understand) requires a global mindset shift.

Communities and service designs need to be non-judgmental and unbiased in their mental health support. In Nigeria, this requires collaboration with agencies such as the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development to build non-specialist skills – such as active listening – with parents and grandparents, ethnic and religious leaders, and other caregivers to better support and understand their children.

  • I CAN TRUST: This generation needs access to trusted and reliable support systems on and offline. Research has shown that many Nigerians believe that mental illness is caused by supernatural forces, and this misinformation is spread by certain religious organizations. Providing vetted, unbiased information is integral, and engaging local faith-based and religious organizations as part of a holistic mental health care system is key.
  • I AM EQUIPPED: Youth need the skills to identify when peers around them need help, provide early support, and guide them to access other support resources.

Introducing mental health education into the school curriculum teaches children socio-emotional skills that improve interactions with others and self-management of emotions.

Research shows that not only does this reduce emotional distress but also increases academic success. 

Putting youth at the heart of systems innovation

Another initiative leading the way in demonstrating mental health systems innovation is Being. Hosted by Grand Challenges Canada and partners, Being supports youth mental health and wellbeing by focusing on three key pillars:

  • LEARN: To understand the needs and drivers of young people’s mental health.
  • INVEST: To fund youth-led mental health innovation.
  • MOBILIZE: To foster partnerships and create an ecosystem that allows for system-wide change to support youth wellbeing.

In the first phase, Being has supported locally-driven consultations with youth, policymakers, local organizations and mental health experts in priority countries.

The goal? To determine what’s needed in each country and help build consensus around priorities for advocacy and funding. By connecting people and creating networks, the Being initiative aims to do more than just treat symptoms. It wants to change the way society thinks about mental health, from prevention to promotion and everything in between.

The most important part, though, is making sure that young people have a say. A diverse range of youth serve as program advisors and as key stakeholders in consultations, and as Being grows youth-led organizations will be central to carrying out the work in each of the priority countries. 

“We must center youth leaders at the forefront of decision-making globally,” said Viet Trinh, a Vietnam-based Being Youth Advisor and Program Director, Lighthouse Social Enterprise. “The leadership of young people, especially those with lived experience of mental health challenges, is so important. In mental health advocacy platforms, the participation and leadership of marginalized youth populations becomes even more urgent and meaningful.”

Community spirit

An old African proverb states that it takes a village to raise a child. Systems innovation is a methodology to put this proverb into practice to improve the mental wellbeing of children and young people. A strengthened healthcare system will only work if the necessary communities band together – religious and faith-based organizations, mental health experts, relevant government sectors, policymakers, tech industry – to collaborate on creating a brighter, safer future for children.

Who’s ready to join us on this journey?
Discover more about UNICEF’s work in the mental health sector and how you can help the cause.

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