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Losing our Minds: What is the status of youth's mental health today?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

A woman is screaming to release pent-up emotions.
A woman is screaming at the top of her lungs.

I will be focusing on the vast topic of mental health and the proliferation of mental illnesses currently plaguing our society. The inspiration that propelled my interest in writing about this topic is my passion for working with youth, namely adolescents and young adults. Another source of inspiration that's the driving force behind this post is the extensive coverage that mental health/mental health disorders have gotten in the media. UNICEF has recently published its seminal annual State of the World's Children 2021 report, and it sheds important light on mental health along with its various elements.

My main goal is to inform readers of the mental health crisis. Hopefully, this writing piece will help change your perspective and gain a newfound appreciation of the importance of mental health on our overall well-being.

I read a recent New York Times article that discussed youth mental health. The headline "Alarm Sounded on Youth Mental Health" ,originally published on December 8, 2021, instantly grabbed my attention, and I was very disturbed by a few statistics mentioned in the article. It stated that emergency room visits among adolescent girls who've attempted suicide had increased the prevalence rate by 51%. In contrast, the prevalence rate of emergency room visits among adolescent boys who have tried suicide is only 4%. Although this is a small percentage, we should not be so quick to dismiss or minimize it. Suicide is a sensitive matter that impacts all of us in some capacity. Furthermore, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S Surgeon General, declared adolescent mental health a public health emergency and for valid reasons. The heightened risk of suicide, depression, anxiety, and the shortage of qualified mental health specialists across the U.S point to the severity and the proliferation of mental health issues among the adolescent/youth age group.


A woman has her hands on top of her head with a flustered look on her face that could indicate that she might be stressed and/or anxious about something.
A woman is shown to exhibit anxiety and signs of stress.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity(death)." In the UNICEF SWOC 2021 report, elements of WHO's general definition of health are used to define mental health, which is a state of well-being in which individuals realize their full potential and abilities, can cope with the daily stressors of everyday life, work productively, and contribute to their communities." The UNICEF SWOC 2021 report framed mental health as one domain of health. Readers should understand the concept of well-being as an amalgamation of social, psychological, and cognitive elements that shape our holistic health and general outlook on life.

The report helped to change my perspective of mental health's key components. The UNICEF SWOC 2021 report described mental health as a continuum of emotions ranging from mild/tolerable to severe/debilitating. The main point that the report drives home is that we experience a diverse range of emotions; it's an intrinsic part of the human experience. Individual circumstances and distal(community/societal) factors are the main culprits that significantly influence our feelings, thoughts, and feelings. Although the biomedical treatment model is a helpful framework in understanding mental illness, it is flawed in some aspects, and one example of a flaw is its one-dimensionality. It examines an individual's biological/epidemiological makeup and not the other domains of human development-emotional, social, psychological, cultural, and spiritual.


The wide prevalence of mental health disorders warrants full awareness. Over 1.2 billion adolescents between 10-19 years old living in the world in 2020 alone. Out of the entire adolescent population, approximately 13% of youth present some form of a mental health disorder. Quantitatively, this represents about 86 million adolescents between 15-19 years old and around 80 million children in the 10-14 year age group who suffer from some form of a mental health disorder. Boys have a greater prevalence rate and frequency of having mental health disorders than their female counterparts; the prevalence rates were 13.8% and 12.5%, respectively.

Eastern Asia and the Pacific, Southern Asia, North America, and Western Europe collectively had the highest prevalence rates of adolescents who presented mental health issues. On average, adolescent boys had a higher prevalence rate of youth with mental health disorders than girls, which is 13.8% and 12.5%, respectively.

The most commonly reported mental health disorders among youth are anxiety and depression, which comprise approximately 40%(42.9%) of the youth population who suffer according to the Global Burden of Disease 2019 study carried out by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation(IHME). Furthermore, girls between the ages of 10-19 present a higher prevalence rate of anxiety and depression disorders than their male peers; the prevalence rates were around 57%(56.3%) and 32% (31.4%), respectively.

About 45,800 youth die from suicide annually, according to the World Health Organization(WHO). Disturbingly, suicide occurs every 11 minutes. On a global scale, suicide ranks number 5 of the highest death rates among adolescents from both age groups. This data can be disaggregated even further by gender and age. Suicide ranked number 4 on the list of common causes of death among adolescent boys in the older age group of 15-19 years old. Suicide ranked number 3 on the list of common causes of death among teenage girls in the older age group of 15-19 years old. On average, suicide was ranked number 4 on the list of common causes of death that impacted both genders in the same age group(15-19 years old) equally.

This data can be disaggregated even further by geographic region. Suicide ranked number one on the list of common causes of death in Eastern Europe and Central Asia among teenagers aged 15-19-year-old age group. North America, Western Europe, and Southern Asia all ranked second place of death on the list of common causes of death among adolescents 15-19 years old. And last but not least, the Latin American and the Caribbean region ranked third place on the list of common causes of death among older adolescents between the ages of 15-19 years old. Globally on average, suicide was ranked number four on the list of the top 10 causes of death among boys and girls aged 15-19.



Many risk factors at the individual, community, and systemic levels could spark the impetus of mental health disorders among individuals, namely youth. The UNICEF report utilized a social-ecological framework to analyze the origin of mental illnesses; the ecological model uses elements from Urie Bronfenbrenner's original theory. Examples of risk factors at the individual and family level that spark the onset of mental health disorders are low birthweight, suboptimal nutrition at birth, parental instability, poverty, etc. These interact to shape an individual's life trajectory and impede children's brain development.

At the community and societal level, the UNICEF SWOC 2021 report posited that discrimination, poverty, humanitarian disasters, migration, disease outbreaks-i.e the COVID-19 pandemic impact children in some capacity. As much as caregivers and parents try to insulate their children from social issues to alleviate their fears and anxiety, there is only so much protection they do for their children. Many people often blame the advent of social media platforms and their wide accessibility as the primary driver of mental health disorders among individuals, which is accurate to some extent. The UNICEF SWOC 2021 report, regarding its discussion on poverty and its subsequent impact on children's health and welfare, argued that the timing and frequency of living in impoverished conditions could significantly affect a child's mental health state. So, in essence, the longer children live in abject poverty and the more prolonged it is, the more likely they will suffer from mental health challenges later in life.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of various pre-existing and new manifestations of inequality among the haves and the have-nots. Take, for example, the digital divide. School-age youth, mainly in low-income and middle-income countries, suffered the most in terms of the quality of their education due to a lack of resources to continue their educational pursuits during the lockdown period in March 2020. I read an alarming statistic that over 1.6 billion school-age students were directly impacted by school closures, contributing to learning loss. To make matters worse, about 463 million children could not fully engage in online learning due to a lack of accessibility to resources. School closures did more harm than good because they made children more vulnerable to abuse, violence, or exploitation in some capacity.

The delivery of mental health services is hugely impacted by the pandemic. According to a World Health Organization(WHO) survey, 66% of countries surveyed out of 130 countries had to discontinue mental health services to those in dire need. On the other hand, 80% of countries had to stop providing mental health counseling services in schools amid the early stages of the pandemic.

I want to present my closing arguments on the broader implications of stigma and resilience. Stigma is a deterrent that prevents many individuals from openly discussing their lived experiences with mental illness. It also hinders individuals from seeking the proper necessary medical treatment to effectively cope with daily stressors stemming from mental health disorders, such as negative judgment and limited job opportunities, and so forth. We ALL are all responsible for eradicating the stigma around mental illness. Educating others is an excellent starting point. Also, I implore my readers to continuously speak up against any form of mistreatment towards any individual or group who may experience some form of disability and mental health challenge in both online and offline settings. Remember, silence shows complicity!

Resilience is often synonymous with recovery from any adversity or hardship one may endure, which is an accurate point. However, there has been a drastic shift from viewing resilience from an individualistic standpoint to a more holistic understanding. Researcher Michael Ungar and colleagues conducted a cross-cultural research study with 89 respondents in 11 countries to ascertain different ways that resilience can be developed and cultivated in individuals' lives; the study findings were profound. Ungar and his colleagues posited that resilience can be cultivated through seven mechanisms; they are: access to material resources, relationships, a sense of identity, power/control, cultural values, cohesion, and social justice. In all, they arrived at the conclusion that resilience is "the ability of individuals to successfully navigate their way in life utilizing psychological, cultural, material, and social assets to maintain their well-being and to individually and collectively negotiated for these particular resources to be provided to them and to experience them in meaningful and culturally significant ways".


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