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Moving the needle on mental health for young people

11 Nov 2019
Moving the needle on mental health for young people

By Chantelle Booysen

Leading Minds Call on Global Action to Support and Protect Mental Well-Being for Youth 

 The following blog is the transcript of the closing remarks for the Leading Minds 2019 Conference for Children and Young People on Mental Health by Chantelle Booysen, Global Mental Health Advocate and Social Impact Entrepreneur. In the last 50-60 years UNICEF, WHO & member states have worked tirelessly in reducing infant mortality rates and succeeding at it. In fact, one could go so far as to say that this is one of the major development-success stories of our time.The thing is though, these surviving infants, who you’ve fought for, and saved, have now grown into children, adolescents and young people that are now in desperate need to have something to stay alive for.Our growth in population also comes at a devastating cost – we damage the planet and the environment; we develop diseases that become ever more difficult to cure; and we end up in hopeless spaces that are immensely difficult to navigate.This blend of very intentional successes coupled with unforeseen and unprepared consequences are what we are facing when we are talking mental health for children and young people.And this is where a conference like Leading Minds, with the influence and power in this room, can spark this intentional action with stakeholders to drive a new success story. A success story that is driven by robust, authentic and exploratory conversations.Different levels of communication are necessary in order for our children and young people to survive and ultimately thrive. I also want to highlight that it will not take only one – or two – organizations, with one solution to fix this problem, but a collaborative approach with enabled environments to remedy this mental health epidemic.Our biology is but one element in an array of elements determining our mental health or ill-health - our environment, our socio-economic status, our placement or displacement, our interaction with violence, our loneliness – these are all real things that affect much of our ability to be mentally healthy.Listening to various accounts of people speaking at this conference, and particularly our young leaders, some very clear themes came up that we should action on.I would like to introduce a policy brief titled Young people will transform Global Mental Health. This policy brief was developed by the Young Leaders for the Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health, as part of the #mymindourhumanity dissemination campaign, a campaign that is supported by the Wellcome Trust, Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. More importantly, the development of this policy brief was led by young people, with lived experience that does doing work at community level too.As the lead author of this policy brief, together with four other leaders, we used evidence-based research from the Commission’s report to address three key recommendations. These recommendations, although they did not capture all of the key thoughts here today, certainly formed a foundation for youth mental health in a rather practical way for governments to act and react.These recommendations are what I would call “QUICK WINS”, that governments can implement with the guidance and pressure of WHO and UNICEF:
  1. To ensure full and direct participation of young people and people with lived experience at the beginning, middle and end of policy and initiatives involving adolescent and child mental health;
  2. To increase investment in prevention and early intervention, and this we have seen in the form of direct interventions, implement effective social policies that address social factors that influence mental health during developmentally sensitive periods, including poverty, gender discrimination and violence;
  3. To improve and support mental health literacy, promote self-care and connect access to emergency services in all education systems. This can be done by focusing on skills training, screening for at-risk young people and the education of teachers, primary care physicians and media. Integrated youth mental health or brain health curricula should be integrated in the same way as physically active programmes.
There are many other points that are VERY important, but I would like to highlight the following points that came out of the Leading Minds conference that needs a critical lens, is:
  1. The need for evidence-based initiatives and for institutions, governments and global custodians of well-being of children and adolescents to financially support youth to develop good evidence and financially support them in that process. This is even more important in the global South where only 5% of global research on youth and adolescents account for these regions.
  2. Bridging supportive tools and platforms between fast moving innovations by young people trying to fill the void of lack of services and the slow movement of traditional and formal structures.
They say humans change slowly and incrementally, over time – but right now we need to be the wind, that forces the sails of the boat to change direction.
These points also highlight where leadership is failing young people. Young people are protesting in Hong Kong, in Beirut, in Algeria, to name a few. Does it mean that the only way that young people will be heard is through strike action?Does it mean that we let people rest over the weekend, after #Fridays4Future just so we can continue the protest first thing Monday morning? Should we call it #MondayFutureMoods or #nomoremondayblues?Time has come for those advocating for mental health and wellbeing to scale up our asks, to be more unreasonable and bolder with our requests. For too long we have been silent and felt undermined within the global health setting. The needle needs to shift and it won’t shift without unreasonable demands in order to settle reasonable action.They say humans change slowly and incrementally, over time – but right now we need to be the wind, that forces the sails of the boat to change direction.What will it take for every not-for-profit initiative to include additional funding requests toward mental health checks?What will it take for every for-profit organisation to allocate additional funding to mental health checks and access to services?What will it take for governments and member states to allocate funds to incorporate and include mental health services in every national, regional or municipal departments?And what will it take for philanthropists, donors and social funders to include the requirement and provide additional funding for mental checks and provisions for all interventions funded?I want to end with the following by addressing the white (and blue) elephant in the room: STIGMA, stigma in funding allocation, stigma in policies, stigma in inclusion of lived experience, stigma in every sphere of society.Only once governments, funders, organizations and companies really take mental health seriously, will there be a shift in stigma and its impact in communities.Only once people feel truly supported and protected can we begin to eliminate stigma-related behavior in our society.Thank you.
Chantelle Booysen  (@channy_bird) is Global Mental Health Advocate and Social Impact Entrepreneur and a Youth Leader at the 2019 Leading Minds Conference for Children and Young People, co-hosted by UNICEF and WHO.