No time to lose: Protecting young people’s mental health

young people's mental health, covid-19
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Here, Mental Health Europe call for a crucial overhaul in European support for young people’s mental health through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

“This crisis is being made worse by the pandemic. Policymakers and adults have an opportunity to do something about it now. Invest in us now, before it is too late. Let us not be the lost generation to COVID.” (Erika, 17, Ireland.)

Erika is just one of millions of young people in Europe whose mental health was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing restrictions. Recent reports by UNICEF and OECD outline rising numbers of mental health problems among European youth. The research speaks for itself: Immediate action on national and European levels is needed to address the mental health crisis of young people in Europe.

The data paints a grim picture for youth mental health in Europe

In most Member States, mental health problems among young people (15–24-year-olds) have doubled in 2020-2021. Young people constitute an especially vulnerable group as they were 30% to 80% more likely to report experiences of depression or anxiety in contrast to adults, according to the report by OECD.

Particularly worrying is the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in Europe, warned UNICEF in a recent report. Moreover, nine million adolescents in Europe (aged 10-19) experience problems with their mental health.

A contributing factor to the rising levels of mental health problems among youth is the disruption of daily routine and social interactions that usually support good mental health. The closures of educational institutions led to a weakening of various support systems for young people’s mental health.

It is crucial to consider an intersectional perspective: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were especially affected by pandemic restrictions. “We see in periods of disaster that the socio-economic inequalities that already exist in society enlarge,” says Eveline Crone, professor of Developmental Neuroscience in Society at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

“Children who are already advantaged in terms of being in good schools or having parental support, they don’t suffer that much during home schooling. Children who are dependent on the schools for their personal growth get hit the hardest.”

In addition, the impact of COVID-19 on labour markets has hit young people disproportionally. Many experienced severe loss of work and income during the pandemic as a result of rising unemployment and reduced working hours.

A landmark report by the European Youth Forum warns that work uncertainty and instability make up an immense source of unhappiness and stress for many young people. They feel they need to compromise on career aspirations and accept poor employment conditions to improve their chance of employment. All these factors expose young people to elevated risk of mental health issues.

On top of that, mental healthcare services for adolescents and young people across Europe have been heavily disrupted by the pandemic. A survey by WHO reported that school mental health programmes were completely or partially stopped in more than three-quarters of countries globally. Besides, in over 70% of countries child and adolescent mental health services experienced disruptions.

“In most Member States, mental health problems among young people (15–24-year-olds) have doubled in 2020-2021. Young people constitute an especially vulnerable group as they were 30% to 80% more likely to report experiences of depression or anxiety in contrast to adults.”

While the research is worrisome, it also underlines the urgency for immediate and holistic policy action. Recommendations by civil society and international organisations are plentiful.

The way forward: How to support youth mental health in Europe

A variety of recommendations from international bodies and youth organisations provide a blueprint of effective measures to support young people’s mental health in Europe.

The European Youth Forum outlines a number of policy recommendations stating that it is highly important to commit to the provision of and access to information and quality formal and informal youth- focused mental health services in every educational institution, youth centre, job centre, cultural centres and other non-medical service points where young people seek support. This approach will ensure that the most vulnerable young people are reached. Furthermore, European policymakers should invest in mental health literacy and provide training and resources to teachers, administrative staff, job centre staff, youth workers as well as other non-health related professionals that work with youth to recognise mental health problems, provide basic support and referral to medical mental health services when needed.

Additionally, it is essential to support the right to disconnect for workers, learners and educators in order to promote healthy digital usage and manage the speedy intensification of both online working and schooling. Above all, a holistic approach to mental health is fundamental.

This includes recognising the link between socio-economic factors, such as unemployment, housing insecurity, and academic pressures and wellbeing. Such an approach ought to be combined with addressing health inequalities to provide adequate support to vulnerable groups of young people who might be at greater risk of mental distress.

WHO Europe also urged governments to involve young people in decision-making about their health in a recent publication. “Policymakers should indeed start involving young people taking into account their experiences, perspectives and needs.”

To highlight the importance of youth mental well- being, Mental Health Europe, Europe’s largest independent non-governmental network organisation committed to mental health promotion and protection, is focusing on this topic in the third edition of the European Mental Health Week on 9th-13th May 2022.

The campaign provides an opportunity for young people to participate in shaping the future of youth mental health. The time for action is now. We cannot wait any longer to protect the mental health of young people in Europe.

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Communications Assistant
Mental Health Europe
Phone: +32 2 227 2708
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