World Mental Health Day focuses on children and adolescents

The mental health of children and adolescents during the pandemic is of special interest in UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children report, to be presented in Paris shortly.

UNICEF
11 October 2021

Latin America and the Caribbean are undergoing one of the longest school closures since the pandemic due to the new coronavirus began. This situation, together with confinement at homes and the inability to socialize in spaces devoted to leisure or learning, has an impact on the mental health of children and adolescents. The management of stressful situations, anxiety crises, and of the very evolutionary steps inherent in these ages have depended, basically, on the tools, time availability, interest, conditions and real possibilities of each family. Although educational centers, parks and other places to socialize and gradually build a “new normal” are beginning to reopen, homes will continue to be the main space to protect, observe and care for the mental health of children and adolescents.

From UNICEF Cuba, we are sharing some tools to identify alarming signs and promote good practices, relying on the expertise of Dr. Roxanne Castellanos Cabrera, Full Professor at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Havana and coordinator of the Respectful Upbringing project.

This year, for the first time, UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children Report (SWC) will focus on mental health, which is also one of the global priorities for UNICEF’s advocacy. The report will be presented globally on October 5 in Paris, before World Mental Health Day on October 10.

Dra. Roxanne Castellanos Cabrera, Profesora Titular de la Facultad de Psicología en la Universidad de La Habana
UNICEF
Dra. Roxanne Castellanos Cabrera, Profesora Titular de la Facultad de Psicología en la Universidad de La Habana

How do we assess mental health in children and adolescents?

In the same way that bodily conditions affect physical health, we speak of mental health to refer to a state of well-being that enables people to function properly; to carry out all their activities and to experience satisfaction about what they do in the contexts that they live in.

In general, it’s about experiencing balance from the psychological point of view. Whether for children and adolescents or for adults, the parameters are similar. The peculiarities lie in the ways these are expressed.

A child with good mental health, from the point of view of their mood, is cheerful. From the point of view of their energy, they’re active. They play a lot, because at these ages play is a synonym of mental health. They are also adaptable to different situations. They show resilience, since, though they might face some adversities, they are able to get over them without this generating major issues from the psychological point of view.

From the roles of parents or caregivers of children and adolescents, how can we contribute to protecting their mental health?

The good mental health of children is expressed by the level of satisfaction they experience with their family, in the educational context and their socialization spaces with their peers.

The first thing that people in charge of upbringing must do is to be present, to constantly accompany them in their activities, to share life with them. This implies being perceptive of the psychological needs of each stage and providing children and adolescents with the right conditions so they can satisfy them. It requires an interest in preparing to know what the characteristics of each evolutionary stage of childhood are.

Respect, affection and communication are key for promoting mental health in children and adolescents. Maintaining a respectful relationship with our children means not encroaching upon them in any way. Offering comfort and support in the face of adversities is also a factor of protection for good mental health.

If we want to promote mental health in children and adolescents in our care, we must be aware of the proper way in which we conduct our upbringing and exercise the authority we have as adults, because we can unintentionally hurt them. Some of these more complex aspects, which require preparation and training in parents and other caregivers are:

  • Establishing authority
  • Defining educational requirements
  • Reinforcing limits and manners of behavior
  • Disciplining methods
Niños, niñas y adolescentes están entre las personas más afectadas psicológicamente tras los últimos 18 meses
Cortesía de la familia
Niños, niñas y adolescentes están entre las personas más afectadas psicológicamente tras los últimos 18 meses

What are the main challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic with regards to the mental health of children and adolescents?

At these ages, they are especially vulnerable to the alteration of their routines and the structuring of their lives. The fact that they’ve been in physical isolation at home for a long time, without attending essential contexts for their development (school, relationship with peers, the stimulation that comes from living freely…), has implied levels of disruption of psychological well-being which can eventually affect mental health, in relation with the personal and contextual individualities of each child.

Additionally, confinement means that families have to take over the function and responsibility of all those activities. Therefore, at every step, it has depended –and still does– on the availability of their time, conditions, and tools to respond to the needs of children and adolescents.

That’s why the message for Cuban families is that they should never lose sight of the responsibility they bear regarding the mental health of children and adolescents in their care, or of the importance of devoting the necessary effort to promoting that psychological well-being they very much need.