A big part of UNICEF's mission to save and protect the world's most vulnerable children extends to children's mental health — an area of growing concern in the midst of global conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
These existential threats are taking a heavy toll on children and raising concerns about the mental health of a generation.
Consider children living through the war in Ukraine. Children who were at school one day and running for their lives the next. Children who have witnessed brutality and destruction. Children who have lost loved ones.
UNICEF understands that children exposed to trauma and war need mental health support. Fears and anxieties that arise in times of stress can have long-term effects. What happens in childhood can last a lifetime.
While millions of children have escaped Ukraine, that doesn't mean they have left it behind.
At Blue Dot Centers at the borders of Ukraine, UNICEF and partners are helping to reunite families while providing registration and protection of unaccompanied children. They are offering medical first aid and access to accommodation and transport for travel onwards. Also at these Blue Dots: child-friendly spaces and psychological support services.
In 2021, in the course of responding to humanitarian crises worldwide, UNICEF helped 21 million children and caregivers access mental health and psychosocial support. Community-based mental health and psychosocial support, including targeted awareness campaigns, reached over 8.4 million children and adolescents in 111 countries — a 170 percent increase over 2017 — and 3.6 million parents and caregivers in 97 countries.
Child mental health and psychosocial support programs have long been a key component of emergency relief efforts for children living in conflict zones — Syrian children, Ethiopian children, Rohingya children, among many others.
Whenever and wherever children and adolescents are in crisis, UNICEF works with partners to provide psychosocial support, counseling and vocational and life-skills training.
Meeting mental health needs in emergencies is only part of it, however.
For healthy development, children need mental health support throughout their childhood.
An important step forward is to open a dialogue around mental health concerns, which helps to de-stigmatize mental health. "It's okay not to be okay" is a helpful message for children and adolescents to hear.
Caregivers can foster good mental health by nurturing children and allowing them to play, grow and express themselves. UNICEF has training programs that are helping to build these capacities within communities.
Yet historic underinvestment in mental health continues to hurt all children. Less than 1 percent of governmental health budgets in low-income countries goes toward mental health.