This year’s World Mental Health day, which is today, focuses on the 40% of the global population who are between 10 and 24 years old. A special report by the WHO on adolescent health, which was published in September, said that unaddressed mental health issues will put a huge burden on what is the largest generation of young people in history.
The report warned that 10-20% of adolescents suffer from ailments that could have long-term impacts on their mental health, including emotional disorders, anxiety, psychosis and self-harm. Depression was identified as a particular problem – around 80% of cases begin in adolescence.
“If these disorders are left untreated, they can extend into adult life, thus impacting educational attainment, employment, relationships and even parenting,” warned Tarun Dua, a mental health adviser at the WHO.
The WHO has provided recommendations and examples of activities that can help detect and treat such disorders early. These include self-guided or group psychological interventions, training for families and school staff, community mental health programmes and initiatives to prevent substance abuse, self-harm and suicide.
The report found that self-harm is the second most common cause of death for girls aged 15-19, and the third most common for boys of that age range (see chart).
Chart: Self-harm caused by mental health issues is among the top five causes of death for young people.
Tomás Baader, director of the Chilean Alliance Against Depression, said that the switch from childhood to adolescence brought about “neurobiological, psychological and neuro-adaptive changes”, which happen at the same time as important physical and hormonal transformations. He explained that the systems to regulate emotions are not fully mature in adolescents, making them more vulnerable to external and internal stimuli.
“This increases if they have experienced negative situations such as sexual abuse, famine, wars and poverty early on,” Baader said.
The WHO report recommends making the environments for adolescents safer, especially if they live in areas already stressed by conflict, poverty or crime. This could include talking about mental health issues, training teachers to spot signs of depression and creating intervention programmes for vulnerable young adults.
“If these disorders are left untreated, they can extend into adult life, thus impacting educational attainment, employment, relationships and even parenting,”
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Chiara Servili, an adviser at the WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said that schools play an important role in all this. But, she added, such interventions “can be carried out in the community, in health facilities or through digital media”. The last resource, which includes online interventions, could be particularly appropriate, the WHO said, due to the stigma attached to mental health issues, which may prevent some young adults from seeking help. Stigma is part of the reason why mental health services are not well developed in many countries, the report said. However, it added that mental health interventions for young people must be carefully planned to “ensure that they are accepted by them and that they will be useful”.