What’s the matter? Kids, Covid, and the cost of mental health

 

Michael Samuel

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It is a little-known fact that the first Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Brock Chisholm, was a psychiatrist. His work during the World Wars exposed him to the pressing need for mental health. Just like Dr Chisholm, today’s health professionals are witnessing a mental health crisis brought on by an unprecedented trauma, the Covid-19 pandemic, and they too are stressing the importance of mental health provisions.

According to the most recent global data, 970 million people live with a mental health disorder (Our World in Data, 2018) and approximately 8 million die each year as a result. Whilst these statistics are far from good enough, mental health amongst adults has stabilised since 1990. By contrast, youth mental health is measurably worsening. Worldwide, one in seven adolescents is estimated to live with a disorder (The State of the World’s Children UNICEF, 2021). Suicide is among the top five causes of death for this group. In England, despite superior resources to many other countries, one in six children and young people is estimated to live with a mental health disorder, up from one in nine in 2017. I see this through my work as Chair of the Anna Freud charity. Though no group is immune to mental illness, poor mental health disproportionately affects people from already marginalised groups, specifically LGBTQ+ and black people, young women, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Whilst the challenge is huge, philanthropy must be part of the solution. Research by NM Impact, United Global Mental Health, and Arabella advisors have shown the ‘unique role’ philanthropists may play. The agility of philanthropists allows them to support areas that are difficult or inaccessible to governments and other institutions. We, as philanthropists, have an opportunity to affect change in an area that impacts ourselves, our peers, and our children – but first, we must understand the problem.

Happier and healthier children make for happier and healthier adults who, in turn, can better contribute to the economy and society as a whole, so the incentive is there for philanthropists to grasp.

The pandemic is a common factor in the decline in mental health. Whilst they have thankfully escaped the worst physical effects of Covid, many children and young people are facing the perfect storm of depression, anxiety, and even, grief, as a result of the pandemic. School closures, disruption to routine, and living in homes with financial and relationship struggles have exacerbated pre-existent mental health conditions and led to new diagnoses. It is not difficult to grasp why. According to UNICEF, at least one in seven children has been impacted by lockdowns, with more than 1.6 billion children suffering some loss of education. In my native UK, the rate of referrals to children’s mental health services is at an all-time high.

There is, however, some cause for hope. Some children and young people have not been adversely affected and others may even be happier than they were pre-pandemic. Conversations about mental health have become more common and increasingly destigmatised.

Philanthropy can support the mental health effort in several ways. One can, of course, donate to charities that specialise in children and young people’s mental health. This ensures that funding efficiently reaches those who most need it. For a more hands-on alternative, one can act as a trustee on a board of a mental health charity. My work as Chair of Trustees for the Anna Freud Centre, a charitable organisation dedicated to developing and delivering cutting-edge mental health care for children and families, has been some of the most rewarding of my career. It led to me becoming involved in the Mental Health Collective (MHC), an inspiring initiative bringing together philanthropists and activists under the inspiring leadership of Natasha Müller.

Going forward, mental health philanthropists will need to be conscious of three areas in particular. First, early action in response to mental health problems. Research has shown that 50 per cent of problems are established by age 14 and 75 per cent by age 24. Some are even shaped during pregnancy. The earlier accurate diagnoses are received, the earlier effective treatment can be provided. Second, philanthropy must make the most of digital platforms and treatments. As the pandemic has made clear, technology can help us respond creatively to the most pressing needs of our society. Using digital platforms and therapies will allow treatment to be scaled up and democratised. Finally, whilst it is certainly a positive that the public is being prompted to reflect on their own mental health, organisations must be careful to distinguish between those suffering from a mental problem and people who are generally unhappy. The latter group deserves our sympathy and help but needs to be differentiated to ensure support can be targeted at those with diagnosable disorders.

Our children and young people’s well-being would be reason enough to champion mental health philanthropy. Nevertheless, resolving the youth mental health crisis benefits everyone. Happier and healthier children make for happier and healthier adults who, in turn, can better contribute to the economy and society as a whole, so the incentive is there for philanthropists to grasp.   

Michael Samuel MBE is the Chair of the Anna Freud Centre in London.


Upcoming issue: Mental health philanthropy

This issue of Alliance will explore the present state of philanthropy for mental health (who is doing what and where the gaps are), the intersections with other issues, the factors which have limited mental health philanthropy and the steps that are needed to bring philanthropists together to make common cause in the area. Guest edited by Krystian Seibert, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University Australia and chair, Mental Health First Aid, Australia.

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