New Social Compact

Mental Health is Key to Sustainable Development: It Starts with Quality Education

On Mental Health Awareness month, the Executive Director of the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies, Education Cannot Wait, calls for expanded support for crisis-impacted children worldwide.

Millions of children and adolescents witness family members attacked and killed. They see their homes burnt to the ground. They flee through the night in search of safety. They live in constant fear and violence. The abnormal has become “normal” in their life. Indeed, this is the reality facing many of the 222 million children and adolescents worldwide whose lives and mental well-being are affected, as a result of brutal conflicts and forced displacement, all while their education is disrupted.

As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we need to recognize the instrumental role that education, schools and teachers play in providing mental-health and psycho-social services, along with safety and security. It means getting girls and boys back to safe and protective learning environments, while ensuring schools are staffed and equipped to respond to the unique mental health issues facing crisis-affected children and adolescents. Through integrated school-based mental health interventions, access to education also means a chance to recover and rebuild these young souls and enable them to learn and develop.

We cannot leave them behind. Too many girls and boys exposed to conflict and forced displacement face severe emotional stress and pressure that could result in lifelong mental health and psychosocial issues. These children can all too often become victims of human trafficking, sexual violence and recruitment into armed groups. They will suffer stigma and discrimination within their communities and struggle to recover from the trauma, stress and adversity caused by such profound life-altering events.

Stress and adversity affect children at every life stage. In early childhood, this stress has a broad impact, particularly on learning and memory. In later childhood and early adolescence, it can cause problems in maintaining attention spans, and impede impulse and emotional control which can lead to aggressive and disruptive behaviours.

At least 1 in 7 children and young people between the ages of 10 and 19 worldwide has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to UNICEF. Many developed countries are struggling to respond to this severe mental health crisis, made even worse by COVID-19, the omnipresence of social media, and an uptick in violence in schools.

In places like Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Sahel, the Middle East and Latin America, the mental health crisis is taking on new proportions. It’s not just that children aren’t able to access school staff who have the knowledge and skills required to address the specific needs of children under stress – many aren’t able to go to school at all. In fact, more than 260 million children worldwide are out of school altogether, with 78 million of them living in crisis contexts.

In my over 30 years with the United Nations and in crises-countries, I’ve witnessed first-hand the stress, pain and trauma that war, displacement, climate-induced disasters and other atrocities leave on young minds. On a recent mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I met with a brave girl named Angel*. She’s just 15 years old now and is the victim of sexual violence. Two years ago, Angel fled inter-ethnic conflict in her village. She and her peers endured horrific acts of violence, child marriage and other human rights violations.

Through sheer determination and resilience combined with structured support, Angel won’t give up, and we must never give up on Angel. Through ECW’s Multi-Year Resilience Programme, UNICEF, WFP, Armee du Salut and other local partners are providing integrated education, protection, nutrition, and mental health and psychosocial support services for Angel and other girls like her. Angel is now back learning in school, with a dream of helping other girls in her situation too.

Across the globe, ECW invests in holistic services that connect mental health and well-being with education, peacebuilding and sustainable development. This has allowed ECW to already reach over 7 million crisis-impacted children living in the world’s toughest contexts to date, with mental health and psychosocial support as an integrated component within all of ECW’s investments worldwide.

I think of the futures of children like Violeta, who fled violence and poverty in Venezuela to seek a better life in Colombia, of Lucas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who lost his mother when armed groups attacked his village, and for girls in Afghanistan like Nafisa, who will not give up on her right to go back to school without fear of attack or violence. By investing in their education, we invest in their mental health and well-being, preparing them for a life without post-traumatic stress, abuses and violence. This is also an investment in their communities and societies.

According to UNICEF, “the annual loss in human capital arising from mental health conditions in children aged 0–19 is US$387.2 billion. Despite demand for support, median government expenditure on mental health globally is a mere 2.1% of the median government expenditure on health in general.” Funding for mental health through humanitarian action is even less – some studies estimate mental health is funded less than 1% in humanitarian crises.

Education faces a similar funding shortfall. The cost to educate every refugee worldwide is approximately US$4.85 billion per year globally, according to the World Bank and UNHCR. Education Cannot Wait and our partners have already raised more than US$830 million toward our current four-year strategic plan. We are halfway there but require a total of $1.5 billion over the next four years to reach our goal of providing 20 million children and adolescents with a holistic quality education, including access to mental health and psychosocial support.

To lead by example and catalyse collective action this Mental Health Awareness Month, ECW is proud to announce that we aim to set aside 10% of our funds globally to fund school-based mental health and psychosocial support services.

Good mental health isn’t a destination, it’s a process. I urge public and private sector donors worldwide to acknowledge the importance of mental health for children and youth surviving in the most abnormal circumstances of brutal conflicts and forced displacement. By funding Education Cannot Wait, we still have a chance to save millions of young lives. Their minds and well-being are priceless. The opportunity for 222 million children and adolescents to recover from their dark and punishing experiences, and enjoy their right to learn, develop and become their potential, is the biggest investment we can make in the human family.

Yasmine Sherif

Yasmine Sherif is the Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. Follow ECW and Yasmine on Twitter at: @EduCannotWait and @YasmineSherif1.

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