Fortify young minds; invest in youth mental health


Theodoros Chronopoulos


Mental health is just as important as physical health. But it’s rarely treated that way.

Particularly for young people – who are in a crucial state of emotional, social, and physical development, and who are especially vulnerable to the effects of instability, poverty, and violence – early and ongoing mental health support can be lifesaving.

Despite this evidence and the growing attention on young people’s mental health, investments in quality, proactive mental health programming have not matched global needs nor demand.

This has to change.

Funders and policymakers must invest in programming that supports the mental health and well-being of young people so they can cope with the litany of challenges they face in today’s world, which have been intensified because of the Covid-19 pandemic. With support, they can handle added stresses, build healthy relationships, and make positive life choices.

At EMpower, we focus on enabling young people in emerging market countries to access inclusive learning, advance their economic well-being, and realise their sexual and reproductive health and rights. While our mandate is broader than mental health, we increasingly see that it is central to achieving our mission – and how important it is to address in its own right.

In South Africa, where we’ve invested in youth programmes on education, health, and employment opportunities since 2002, we have been on a learning journey to better understand adolescent mental health needs. Inter-generational trauma caused by the impact of Apartheid, poverty, and high levels of home, school, and community violence is felt deeply by young people in underserved communities. As a result, the country has a high prevalence of young people living with depression (41 per cent), anxiety (16 per cent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (21 per cent).

Guided by the expertise of our grantee partners and the young people we work with, we found these mental health struggles prevent some youth from thriving amid opportunities, such as doing well in school, starting a new job, or retaining an existing one. We understood that beyond access to opportunities, young people need safe and supportive spaces where they can talk about the difficulties they face, gain practical skills, and address harmful stigmas around mental health.

We’ve also learned that integrating mental health programming into other youth-focused initiatives can also help boost the success of those outcomes. For example, research conducted in South Africa found that addressing depression and anxiety increased adherence to medicines for young women living with HIV.

This kind of integration across development sectors – such as education, employment, and sexual and reproductive health care – holds promise for strengthening the return on all investments.

That’s why we’re calling on funders, policymakers, and other decision-makers to recognise that young people need safe and accessible mental health support in clinical and non-clinical settings – and to invest accordingly.

This work cannot be done without ensuring local organisations are in the driver’s seat at every stage. They know best what kind of support young people want and need – and what will work in the country contexts in which they operate. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health support. What works in one community may not work in another.

Yet one conclusion remains true across the board: mental health programming is most effective when it’s locally led and when young people have multiple options to access support.

So what can funders and policymakers do to ensure youth have access to proactive, locally-led support?

First, the global community must collectively acknowledge the way mental health informs how young people – especially those who experience the effects of larger systemic issues – approach relationships, education, employment, and community engagement in different contexts. Using this information to inform investments in youth programming is not only critical to their well-being, but also to the efficacy of our grants.

Second, it is imperative for funders to find ways to integrate tailored mental health support into existing programmes and systems and fund new mental health initiatives that match their organisational priorities, as well as youth needs. This includes investing in programming that strengthens the health system’s capacity to provide quality mental health care, as well as building communities of care where young people live, work, and play.

Third, funders and policymakers should prioritise young people’s perspectives in their decision-making and, where possible, provide opportunities for them to lead. Youth are the experts of their own lives, and ensuring they have policies, programmes, and organisations that reflect their actual – and not assumed – mental health needs is critical.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has made alarmingly clear, mental health struggles are on the rise among young people around the world. Strategic investments are urgently required to meet this need today, so we can fulfil young people’s mental health care needs tomorrow – and well into the future. All of us, but especially funders and policymakers, have a role to play in making these investments a reality.

Theodoros Chronopoulos is the Senior Programme Officer for Africa and Russia at EMpower. Find him on LinkedIn and follow EMpower on Twitter.

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