Health
Young people and mental health: Covid and beyond

By - World Healthcare Journal

The World Economic Series brought together experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), Cigna insurance company and One Young World to speak about the effects of the pandemic on mental health. Webinar chair the Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell introduced the session by stating that one of the erroneous approaches to the public policy responses to the pandemic is the suggestion that there is a choice to be made between maintaining economic life and protecting health.

Acknowledging the effects of the pandemic on mental health, especially in young people, is of paramount importance, particularly as mental health issues are established by the age of 24, according to Dr Ren Minghui, Assistant Director-General, WHO. With 90 per cent of the global student population affected directly by school closures, there has been a heavy toll on the mental health of today’s youth.

In addition, diminished job prospects and reduced social contact with peer groups have also impacted this cohort, leading to mental health problems affecting 40.4 per cent. Feelings of hopeless and loneliness have been commonly reported, along with increased cases of anxiety and fear around infections on the return to school, and a lack of understanding about how the virus is spread.

“If we do not respond to mental health needs of young people now, we can expect to the higher rates of mental health conditions in our populations of productive age groups,” he concluded.

Dr Devora Kestel, Director of Mental Health and Substance Use Department, WHO, went on to speak about anxiety and depression in 62.9 per cent of the 18,000 young people sampled globally. Around 25 per cent detailed substance abuse and suicidal thoughts as a result, and with 74.9 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds reporting at least one psychological symptom, the WHO is seriously concerned about the mental health of today’s younger generation. For those with current mental health problems, the pandemic has affected them even more.

Young people also suffer more from economic downturn than other groups. They have fewer transferable skills and they are not yet stabilised in the work context. “We know from the evidence gathered time and again, people with mental illness are almost twice as likely not to be in education or employment or training as those in the general population, which will in the end reduce the available workforce and tax base,” she said.

How to support young people 

Serious and sustained investment is needed to support young people, and the good news is that the return on investment for this group is $7.50 for each dollar invested. The cost of late care is always more burdensome than early intervention, and there are other consequences including reduced learning capacity, future disability and lost earning potential. There is a bigger burden on the health and social care sectors, and suicide is a very real result in some cases.

For Dr Kestel, the answer lies in funding and she made a direct plea to stop cutting funding. Young people are frustrated that they are not being heard and their voices are important for their future wellbeing and for the economy, she said.

Ella Robertson, Managing Director, International, of One Young World, the global forum for young leaders, spoke about the fears experienced by young people during the pandemic. She highlighted the relationship between mental health and financial stability, noting that mental health issues cost employers around £90bn last year. She commented on recent research that revealed that financial worries create the same amount of stress on the brain as alcohol, affecting the risk cortex and thus decision-making abilities.

Recognising the importance of mental health, One Young World has implemented some changes that were noticeable for their impact within the organisation. “Reminding employees that you value their mental health and instigating a mental health hour can make a huge difference,” she said. “Busting the stigma is so important and needs to be done repeatedly. ” 

Embedding mental health in education is vital, she concluded. Happy Spaces was founded by a One Young World Ambassador to send out work packs to students who didn’t have access to the internet during the pandemic. “There are things we can all do to raise the standard of mental health across the country and give people the personal support that they need. Because, ultimately, that's how most mental health crises end: through personal support and kindness and compassion. That's something that everyone can deliver and doesn't cost any money at all. ” 

Focusing on the future 

Dr Peter Mills, Medical Director at Cigna, recognised the same impacts on mental health – loneliness, anxiety, stress and financial worries – and highlighted three areas he felt policymakers should focus on. Firstly, the need for more mental health practitioners, not just doctors but therapists, nurses and support workers to provide end-to-end care for those who need it.

Secondly, the importance of investing in digital solutions and the research to determine successful solutions for particular groups. Finally, embedding mental health into the education curriculum and self-management solutions for students to implement themselves at such a vulnerable age. “These are important life skills and we need to invest in them to prevent a potential mental health pandemic,” he said. “We have an opportunity now to tackle that, but it really does require significant focus, significant time and some investment as well. ” 

The discussion was kicked off by Gwen Yi, a One Young World Ambassador, who has founded an organisation called Tribeless as a result of her experience with mental health issues in Malaysia. Tribeless creates safe spaces for people to learn and practise empathic conversation skills, born out of her own mental health issues at university which led her to drop out.

It was noted that mental health support in the UK is not sufficient and leads severe cases to present in emergency departments which is not the right support setting. The health sector has a huge responsibility to devote more budget and capacity to mental health, but many countries don’t sufficiently recognise the issue to attach importance to it, and there is still a huge amount of stigma around mental health in many parts of the world.

The accompanying chat addressed issues such as the impact of social media on the mental health of young people, alongside the importance of local communities to create hubs to support people. It also discussed the need for training in existing services to recognise and deal with mental health issues and the importance of making Personal Health Management a core life capability.

The overall reaction to the webinar was a renewed impetus to promote mental wellness at national, community and personal levels, with several ambassadors planning to report on the vital need for mental health support to their national governments.


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