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Leading Minds Conference

On the Vital Importance of Child Identity

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Leading Minds 2022

Following the success of the first Leading Mind Conference in 2019, the conference’s 2022 edition, which was held on 2-4 November in Florence, unpacked the issue of child identity in a rapidly changing world.   


Not only are children dealing with traditional issues related to identity, including those related to sex, gender, race, disability, and socioeconomic status, among others; they are also having to navigate new identity challenges presented by the online world, the so-called ‘culture wars’ prevalent in societies across the world, and threats ranging from radicalization to escalating economic insecurity and the climate crisis.


Through a blend of plenary talks, moderated discussions, breakout workshops and peer-group engagement, Leading Minds 2022 have examined child identity from diverse perspectives, seeking to ask and answer the following questions:   


  • How are children and young people affected by identity challenges in a changing world?  
  • How can understanding identity better protect children from harm, abuse and exploitation?  
  • How is the online world shaping child identity?  
  • Why does child identity matter for government policy and humanitarian action?  
  • How can we translate our evidence and experience into community and youth-led practice?  
  • What actions are needed to lift child identity into greater importance in the international agenda?



The foresight generated from this conference will also inform upcoming Innocenti research project, Voices for Impact: Assessing the Impact of Youth Participation in Decision-Making. 

We posed thought-provoking queries to this year's Leading Minds, such as:

  1. What are your experiences in building positive child identity, both personally and professionally?
  2. Why is it important to come together to build research, strategies, and action on the topic of healthy child identity?
  3. What will it take to promote child identity, and what role do different stakeholders play in creating positive outcomes?

Hear what our esteemed global leaders had to share on the matter:



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Conference Methodology

Pathway to Change

The purpose of the UNICEF Innocenti Leading Minds Conference series is to bring attention to a theme pertinent to the present and future well- being of the world’s children and young people by convening some of the world’s foremost doers and thinkers to examine available evidence and solutions and contribute to accelerating progress on solutions and breakthroughs. The conference series does this through a philosophy based on five principles of convening:

Executive Summary

People look towards a speaker in the middle of a conference hall. The light on the background reads 'Leading Minds 2019'.

Previous Editions

Leading Minds 2020 – Online edition

The Implications of COVID-19 on Children’s Lives and Futures

COVID-19 has unleashed a wave of international concern over risks for children worldwide, including their access to education, digital resources, and potential for increased violence within their homes. In response, Leading Minds Online was established on 6 May 2020, to address these issues. Our first series of webcasts featured expert perspectives on the implications of COVID-19 on children’s lives and futures. This yearbook compiles the insights shared during these webcasts and highlights the recommendations discussed during each virtual event.






Listen to the experts:

All Leading Minds webcasts have been converted into podcasts for easy listening on-the-go and during your busy schedule. Have a listen and subscribe to the podcast now to stay up-to-date with the latest insights and ideas from leading experts.

Leading Minds 2019

Healthy Minds, Healthy Futures

On 7−9 November 2019 UNICEF convened its inaugural Leading Minds conference, taking the pressing issue of mental health of children and young people as its theme. Leading Minds 2019 was co-hosted with the World Health Organization and the Government of Italy, and brought together a diverse array of stakeholders from academia, youth leaders, foundations, government officials, UN agencies and civil society to discuss key challenges and opportunities on the conference theme and explore pathways to change the course.




Additional Resources

Link to publication on Leading Minds Online Yearbook 2020

Leading Minds Online Yearbook 2020

Leading Minds Online, like many good things, was born out of necessity. After a successful inaugural Leading Minds Conference at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in Florence, Italy in November 2019, the office’s convening team began 2020 gearing up for the second annual conference. The COVID pandemic that began in late 2019 put a stop to that. So we took our convening online, convinced that the philosophy that underpinned the Leading Minds convening in 2019 - to bring experts from all walks of life – young people, academics, practitioners, policymakers, businesses, the media, civil society and UNICEF’s own expert staff – around the current and next-generation challenges and opportunities for children could be just as relevant online as it is in person. Hence Leading Minds Online was born on 6 May 2020, with our first webcast series focused on experts' opinions on the implications of COVID-19 on children’s lives and futures. This yearbook summarizes their contributions to each of the webcasts and highlights the recommendations of each virtual event.
Link to publication on Leading Minds Conference 2019

Leading Minds Conference 2019

UNICEF convened its inaugural Leading Minds conference this year, taking the pressing issue of mental health of children and young people as its theme. The purpose of the annual Leading Minds conference series is to bring attention to a theme pertinent to the present and future wellbeing of the world’s children and young people by convening some of the world’s leading minds to examine available evidence and solutions and contribute to accelerating progress on solutions and breakthroughs.
Link to publication on Keynote Speaker at Leading Minds 2019 - Dr Vikram Patel

Keynote Speaker at Leading Minds 2019 - Dr Vikram Patel

Dr. Vikram Patel gave the keynote address on global mental health for children and adolescents at the Leading Minds 2019 conference at UNICEF Innocenti in Florence, Italy. Dr. Patel is the Pershing Professor of Global health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Link to publication on COVID-19 & Children

COVID-19 & Children

Children, despite being less affected by the virus itself, are bearing a disproportionate burden of the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this unprecedented crisis for children, UNICEF Innocenti is mobilizing a rapid research response to provide the evidence needed to scale up rapid assessment, develop urgent mitigating strategies, and prepare interventions to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Link to publication on Leading Minds Conference 2019: Healthy Minds, Healthy Futures. Summary report

Leading Minds Conference 2019: Healthy Minds, Healthy Futures. Summary report

Summary report of the inaugural Leading Minds conference "Healthy Minds, Healthy Futures", eld in Florence on 7-9 November 2019
Link to publication on Child mental health emerging from the shadows

Child mental health emerging from the shadows

With suicide and self-harm now leading causes of death and injury among young people between 15 to 19 years, UNICEF and WHO are coming together for the first time at the Leading Minds for children conference to tackle the growing scale of mental health disorders among children and young people. On World Mental Health Day (10 October) this interview, extracted from the full podcast, presents a fascinating discussion on this emerging global priority for children and young people.   Dr. Vikram PatelSarah Crowe: As a specialist in mental health over many decades, how do you see the scale of mental health concerns facing children today? How has it evolved over the last 30 years since the convention of the rights of the child? Vikram Patel: Mental health in the global context has been the orphan child of global health, and children's mental health has been the orphan child of global mental health. The real scale of the crisis is that we know so little about mental health problems in children in the global context and that the overwhelming majority of children who are already experiencing mental health problems receive neither the recognition, nor do they receive any form of intervention that we know can transform their lives. If you had to ask me what is the actual proportion of children who suffer this kind of neglect, I would say that in most parts of the world - particularly in low income countries - it is virtually 100 percent of children. I think this is the real scale of the crisis: the complete lack of recognition of the mental health needs of children globally. ...the focus of children's health and well-being has moved from children surviving to children thriving.SC: Is it true to say that for underdeveloped countries or communities, mental illness in children is becoming more apparent? VP: Absolutely. I think that is certainly one reason why children's mental health is emerging as it were from the shadows as the focus of children's health and well-being has moved from children surviving to children thriving. It's becoming very apparent that to thrive one needs to have good mental health and that children's mental health problems become more visible, as childhood mortality and physical causes of sickness become much better controlled. Thankfully, it's emerging from the shadows. SC: Can you take us through the child mental health risk factors? At which points in a child's development do they arise? VP: In the earliest years of childhood, the major concerns are those to do with early-life brain development. Intellectual disability and autism being the examples of what some refer to as developmental disabilities. In middle childhood, you begin to see the emergence of emotional disorders, particularly, anxiety disorders. And in adolescence you see the greatest surge of emotional and behavioral disorders, particularly in post puberty years, where you see the emergence of mood disorders, self-harm behaviors, conduct problems and substance use conditions. So, you see quite different conditions occurring at these broad developmental phases of early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence.   Find out about the World Mental Health Day 2019 "A Day for 40 Seconds of Action Campaign"  SC: What about the growth of gender fluidity, or young people choosing actively to associate themselves with being non-binary or searching and exploring a new identity? Is this influencing adolescent mental health at this vulnerable stage of their lives? VP: I don't think this is necessarily a recent development. I think this has historically always been part of our sexual identity, but that it has been more suppressed by rigid and inflexible social norms for a very long time. And I think we should celebrate the fact that many of those orthodox and rigid social norms are being challenged now. And so that it gives greater freedom of space for young people to reject the binary approach of sexual identity. Obviously, where mental health problems arise is when they encounter continuing rejection of those identities by orthodox social norms. Let's be honest: in most parts of the world, orthodox social norms continue to be a major cause of mental health problems. And this has to do not only to fluid gender identity, but with a variety of other denials of autonomy and freedoms that young people continue to experience in many populations around the world. Rondiney Diniz, 20, looks at his mobile phone, inside his home in the city of Fortaleza, in Northeastern Brazil.SC: Has the digital era created greater burdens, greater levels of toxic stress? VP: I certainly think there are unknown perils to do with the digital world. Particularly in childhood and early adolescence, when the brain is very rapidly developing. It is very plastic, it's responding to the environment in exquisitely sensitive ways. And if that environment is one in which you've replaced interaction with real people with a digital world in which your interactions are with virtual people, it's hard for me to know exactly what that impact might be on the brain, but it's not something that we were evolutionary developed to deal with. I think the jury's out about the exact nature of those risks. SC: You've written a lot about the prevention of mental illness and authoritative parenting. What can teachers, caregivers, parents do to put their children on the right path to mental health, whether it's online or off line? VP: Authoritative parenting, in my mind, is the balance between laissez faire parenting - which says, 'whatever you want to do is fine' - and this is different from authoritarian parenting - which says, 'whatever I want you to do is the only acceptable way to do it'. Authoritative parenting is recognizing the growing needs for autonomy as a child transitions into adolescence and then ultimately into young adulthood. It is really a fine art. There isn't necessarily a set of rules that one can apply to identify when a child is entitled to be making more and more decisions of their own. In terms of what parents, children and teachers can do, one most important thing is that we know about children's mental health. While all mental health problems will finally involve some biological dysfunction in the brain, we also know that the most profound influences on brain development and mental health are in the environment. A single way of describing what promotes good mental health is that the environments are nurturing and that they provide a secure space for young people and children to express themselves and be heard. Clcik the image to hear the full interview with Dr. Patel covering a wide range of key issues on global child and youth mental health.SC: How helpful do you think the Convention of the Rights of the Child has been in prompting action against the worst side of stigma, which often leads to horrendous abuses committed by states, communities, families? VP: I think the convention's been a singularly important tool to enshrine the right for a child to live in an environment which is free of fear, of abuse, of neglect and of violence. I think it has been the foundation for many legislations in countries around the world that protect children. However, it would also be fair for me to say that in most of these countries, the actual implementation of these aspirations in the real world has been marred by a number of different barriers. Not least, the fact that most states are unable to in fact see the child as being autonomous from their parents and it is the home environment, especially in early childhood, when so much of the neglect experiences occur. SC: And can you share examples that show these violations up for what they are? Could you give us something you might have seen or experienced or heard from young people? VP: The most important violation is growing up in extreme poverty, in circumstances where parents are unable to provide their children with the necessary emotional nurturing that is so essential to their development and well-being. So, this is not about parent blaming: I want to really stress that. I want to emphasize that families are caught in a vicious trap of poverty, and the failure of the state and of society more generally to recognize children's needs in those extremely marginal settings is what I consider the single biggest threat to well-being in the global context. SC: If we could look forward what are the trends that you see unfolding? What makes you most optimistic about the prevention, care and treatment of mental illness? VP: What gives me greatest hope is the recognition of mental health more generally and children’s mental health more specifically. Mental health is being seen as a global priority. This is not something I witnessed 20 years ago and the very fact that UNICEF, for example, is championing children's mental health, is a sufficient indicator of that transformation. I also see a wonderful opportunity because of the science that we have, of neurodevelopment, clinical and public health interventions for children. We are not working in a vacuum of knowledge. We actually have a lot of things we know can be transformative. I think the real challenge is delivering what we know can be transformative. Another major challenge of course is the continuing stigma attached to the discussions around mental health and well-being. Adolescents don't like to see doctors for any condition, not least for their mental health. Because of a very narrow medical approach to child mental health it is rejected by most children and adolescents. We need to put them front and center in thinking how that should be done. SC: “Nothing about us, without us” is the way forward and we hope to be able to take this on very seriously, going forward to Leading Minds 2019.   Dr. Vikram Patel,  professor of global health at the Harvard University School of medicine and co-founder of Sangath Foundation in India . His work over the past two decades has focused on reducing the treatment gap for mental disorders in low resource countries.  Dr. Patel will be a keynote speaker at the first Leading Minds 2019  conference at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in Florence, Italy.