The Mental Health Burden Affecting Europe’s Children

New UNICEF report exposes watershed moment for adolescent mental health in Europe

Geert Cappelaere
Mental Health
04 October 2021

By Geert Cappelaere 

In Europe today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. Boys aged 10 to 19 die by suicide at more than twice the rate of girls. Only road injuries take more lives of people aged between 15 and 19 years old.

While it is difficult to fathom what goes through the mind of a child as they make the tragic decision to end their life, these statistics point to one indisputable fact: that the failure to address the burden of mental health problems is causing untold suffering for our children.

Indeed, three adolescent lives are lost because of mental health difficulties in Europe every single day. This sobering statistic is contained in UNICEF’s landmark report, The State of the World’s Children 2021: On My Mind. On World Mental Health Day, and as the social and economic ramifications of COVID-19 continue across the globe, data in the report exposes the breadth and depth of Europe’s adolescent mental health issues.

The report finds that almost one in five European boys aged 15 to 19 suffer from mental disorders, followed by more than 16 per cent of girls the same age. Nine million adolescents in Europe (aged 10 to 19) are living with mental disorders, with anxiety and depression accounting for more than half of all cases.

For too long, we have paid lip service to strategies to deal with mental health problems in our youth, while conditions such eating disorders, depression and anxiety affect the children and young people of this continent. Mental health concerns are not new. Indeed, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, teachers and many others were voicing growing unease about the mental health needs of children and adolescents. COVID-19 has put the mental health and well-being of an entire generation even more at risk. We must act now to protect and support the mental health and wellbeing of Europe’s children and youth.

The sad truth is that efforts to confront and treat mental health problems are woefully underfunded. Many governments do not allocate enough resources to the problem. An urgent need exists to scale-up investments on a number of priority fronts.

One, European institutions and national governments should support interventions to facilitate vulnerable groups’ access to mental health and psychosocial support services and improve regional infrastructures through the European Social Fund Plus and the European Regional Development Fund.

Two, national governments should include access to mental health and psychosocial support services in their national action plan for the European Commission’s COVID-19 fund, the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This should include exploring innovative opportunities offered by digital and online technologies to reduce gaps in access to mental health support and reach populations who may traditionally lack access to these services.

Three, schools are ideal vehicles through which to facilitate access to mental health and psychosocial support. Proven strategies include: implementing programmes to build awareness and strengthen emotional coping skills for adolescents; integrating mental health counselling services into education; training teachers and staff in strengthening the wellbeing of students, and creating safe spaces for children to discuss and share their concerns. The EU should support the ‘safe to learn’ initiative to end violence in schools so children are free to learn, thrive and pursue their dreams.  

Four, to build a truly European Health Union, as called for by President von der Leyen, the EU should invest adequate resources in targeted actions to train health and social workers in promoting mental health and psychosocial wellbeing under the EU4Health Programme and under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund to support services for children on the move. 

Five, the EU should incorporate targeted actions on mental health and psychosocial wellbeing in the 20 per cent of official development assistance dedicated to human development in the Global Europe instrument, as well as into humanitarian programmes for preparedness, response and recovery to meet the needs of all populations affected by emergencies.

Six, it’s impossible to overstate preventative value of investments in quality child care, parenting, and family-friendly measures across all sectors.

And finally, the EU should continue to expand its pioneering work on education in emergencies and the mainstreaming of child protection in emergency response.

Above all, what we need now is leadership. We need commitment, especially financial and political, from global, regional and national leaders, that reflects the important role of social determinants in helping to shape mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives, creating a global crisis unprecedented in our lifetime. During Europe’s lockdowns, it has compounded serious concerns about the mental health of children and their families, and illustrated how events in the wider world can affect the world inside our children’s’ heads.

With the spotlight on the pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked on child wellbeing, we must seize this opportunity to implement key interventions, challenge stigmas, support parents, create caring schools, work across sectors, build robust mental health workforces, and establish policies that encourage investment in real solutions. The children of Europe, and the health of the continent, rely on it.

Geert meets with children in Syria
Geert Cappelaere is UNICEF's Representative to European Institutions and Director of the UNICEF Partnerships Office.