How can we improve young people’s mental health?

young people's mental health
© iStock/sestovic

As we approach the culmination of 2022 European Mental Health Week, Mental Health Europe has outlined policy recommendations to safeguard and enhance young people’s mental health, changes that they hope will combat the often invisible pandemic of mental illness.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like all parts of the world, has imbued unprecedented devastation across Europe, causing millions of deaths and leaving a trail of social and economic ruin in its path. Although the physical impacts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are slowly dissipating globally, as infection prevention measures and vaccines now control its dissemination, what mental damage has the pandemic caused? More specifically, how has it impacted young people’s mental health.

The youth of our population is one of the most vulnerable groups, being at an elevated risk of marginalisation and the most impacted by socio-economic determinants of health and well being. Around one-third of 16 to 29 years olds were at risk of poverty and social exclusion before 2020, with poor housing access leaving them exposed to the proposition of homelessness.

This already dire landscape has been severely exacerbated during the dark period of COVID-19, with education and employment opportunities all decreasing, applying a heavy burden on young people’s mental health. Among people aged between 15 and 24, mental health problems have almost doubled in all European countries, and young people are between 30% to 80% more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and loneliness than adults.

Effects of COVID-18 on young people’s mental health

A comprehensive study pioneered by the European Youth Forum analysed how the pandemic influenced the mental health of the younger generation, exploring the factors forging the current mental health landscape.

The survey identified that nearly two-thirds of young people might be impacted by mental health and well-being problems, with 48.8% of the respondents “possibly” having anxiety or depression and 15.9% “probably” having the conditions. This highlights a significant increase from previous years, where around one in four to five people were affected by mental health issues.

The mental health of young women was found to be the most affected, with 17.7% of young women probably having anxiety or depression compared to 13.6% of young men. Moreover, 55.5% of young women possibly had anxiety or depression compared to 40.5% of young men. Marginalised groups were the most significantly impacted, with 19.6% probably having anxiety or depression compared to 12.2% of non-marginalised groups. The drivers of mental health issues among young people are vast, with the two most notable being how COVID-19 paralysed employment and education opportunities.

Mental Health Europe policy recommendations

Mental Health Europe has identified three key areas that, if targeted appropriately by European policymakers, will enhance young people’s mental health. The first is to ensure the adequate prevention of mental health problems and calls for the EU member states to:

  • Integrate mental health in all policies and monitor its implementation;
  • Implement a holistic approach to mental health by promoting social rights and economic protection packages to address socio-economic determinants of mental health, with targeted support for people experiencing exclusion, discrimination and marginalisation;
  • Invest in mental health literacy and include mental health in school curricula and the curricula of teaching staff;
  • Provide social, healthcare and educational workers with the skills and resources to recognise mental health risk factors, provide basic support and referral to mental health services when needed;
  • In times of crisis and emergencies, take into account and include mental health protective factors when developing and implementing responses

The second is to meaningfully empower and actively engage young people in decisions about their mental health and asks that the European Commission and its Member States:

  • Ensure that appropriate and structured mechanisms are in place to meaningfully and continuously engage young people, in policy and decision-making, throughout all phases of the process;
  • Develop forms of outreach and participation to allow the engagement of young people from diverse backgrounds, with a focus on young people from disadvantaged situations and living in severe exclusion;
  • Develop or support comprehensive awareness-raising campaigns on human rights, ending stigmatisation and mental health;
  • Recognise and support the essential role of youth organisations in providing support, information and services to young people regarding their mental health and well-being.

Finally, Mental Health Europe is calling for the European Commission and its Member States to provide targeted mental health for the youth at every stage of life and pledge to:

  • Provide tailored support to the specific needs of the person throughout the life cycle, including during transition periods;
  • Ensure that all the relevant services can cater for the specific needs and provide person-centred support;
  • Make mental health support affordable and accessible to all young people, including the most vulnerable among youth;
  • Recognise and support the essential role of youth organisations in providing support, information and services to young people regarding their mental health and well-being.
  • Better coordinate different services through an integrated approach (mental health services, social services, health services, educational systems, workplaces, etc.) and the provision of community-based services;
  • Conduct further research and better coordinate the collection of disaggregated data across member states.
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