07/19/2017 08:34 EDT | Updated 07/19/2017 08:41 EDT

Improve Child Mental Health Today For A Sustainable Future

If left untreated, childhood mental-health disorders impose a significant cost to the society.

UNICEF/UNI195858/Giuseppe Imperato
A young girl looks out a window of her home in a village of 5.000 inhabitants in the north of Spain. She suffered from sexual and physical abuse committed by her father. After suffering in silence for a long time she finally managed to talk about the abuse with a psychologist when her teacher noticed something was wrong.

Any parent can recognize the signs of early distress in a small child. Young children can be very vocal in showing their emotions: crying, shouting, kicking or throwing toys around. But when they reach early adolescence, psychological problems can become more acute, less easy to detect and even more difficult to fix. Parents are often no longer capable of providing help and become dependent on professional help.

The newly released Innocenti Report Card 14, Building the Future: Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries, shows that on average, 25 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds in high-income countries report experiencing two or more psychological symptoms on a weekly basis. Moreover, one in 12 adolescents report experiencing these symptoms on a daily basis. Girls are consistently more vulnerable. In 26 out of 31 countries, girls at age 15 and 13 are substantially more likely to report experiencing psychological symptoms on a weekly basis compared to boys. Alarmingly, in 13 out of 31 industrialized counties the reporting of these mental-health symptoms have increased between 2010 and 2014. A particularly worrying trend is observed in the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Slovenia and Sweden. Progress in many other countries has remained stagnant.

If left untreated, childhood mental-health disorders impose a significant cost to the society.

Psychological problems among children and adolescents are complex and wide-ranging. They can include disruptive conduct, anxiety, eating and mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other mental problems. Mental health issues of children and young people are slowly gaining the spotlight they deserve. Evidence unambiguously shows the links between adolescents' mental health and the experience of bullying, feeling disconnected to the school environment, perceived exclusion and lack of respect from others. It was also found to be associated with low academic achievement, health-risk behaviours and -- in the most acute cases -- leading to self-harm and suicidal behaviour. If left untreated, childhood mental-health disorders impose a significant cost to the society.


Understanding the drivers and consequences of child and youth mental-health issues is vital for developing the right steps in their prevention. It is the right time to channel more public resources to do so. Target 3.4 under Goal 3 of the Sustainable Development Agenda specifically calls to "promote mental health and well-being." The problem should be taken seriously to provide comprehensive and timely support to parents and children in their struggle to manage emotional and psychological issues. Way too often, help in form of professional mental-health service support comes too late, when issues become acute, entrenched and less responsive to intervention. Patching up a problem is then a more likely outcome.

We want our children to be resilient. But we need to give them that chance.

Report Card 14 findings suggest that identification and diagnosis of children with mental-health and psychological difficulties should start early, before age 11. At the national and international level, there is an urgent need for regular and comprehensive monitoring of children's mental health. This often means developing appropriate survey instruments that could provide evidence on a timely basis.

School systems should give more priority to emotional and psychological well-being of children by establishing an early identification and response system that works in a non-stigmatizing manner. Gender-sensitive interventions, which would support children's ability to respond to pressures of their environment and promote a positive self-image, are particularly important. Finally, children and young people should be given more and better opportunities to talk about the well-being issues that concern them, as well as the help they want to receive. We want our children to be resilient. But we need to give them that chance.

Zlata Bruckauf is a consultant researcher with UNICEF Innocenti working on the Report Card series specializing on inequality and education issues. To discover how UNICEF Canada is working to improve the well-being of children and youth in Canada, click here.

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