Impact of COVID-19 on poor mental health in children and young people ‘tip of the iceberg’ – UNICEF

New analysis indicates lost contribution to economies due to mental disorders among young people estimated at nearly $390 billion a year

06 October 2021
Failure to address children's mental health needs will only limit our efforts to recover from COVID-19.

NEW YORK/SUVA, FIJI, 6 October 2021 – Children and young people could feel the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and well-being for many years to come, UNICEF warned in its flagship report.

According to The State of the World’s Children 2021; On My Mind: promoting, protecting and caring for children’s mental health – UNICEF’s most comprehensive look at the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers in the 21st century – even before COVID-19, children and young people carried a heavy burden of mental health conditions.

According to the latest available estimates, more than one in seven adolescents aged 10–19 is estimated to live with a diagnosed mental disorder globally. Almost 46,000 adolescents die from suicide each year, which is among the top five causes of death for this age group. Meanwhile, wide gaps persist between mental health needs and mental health funding.

Suicide rates among adolescents aged 15-19 years in the Pacific region are significantly higher than in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. For example, according to the World Health Organization’s 2019 Mortality and Global Health Estimates, Kiribati’s adolescent suicide rate is the highest in the Asia-Pacific region at 36 per 100,000 population, and the Federated States of Micronesia is the second highest at 30 per 100,000 population. Vanuatu, Samoa and Solomon Islands also face some of the highest rates in the region. This is compared to the majority of the 21 out of 32 countries in the Asia-Pacific region for which data is available, where suicide rates are less than 10 per 100,000 population.

“It has been a long, long 18 months for all of us – especially children. With nationwide lockdowns and pandemic-related movement restrictions, children have spent indelible years of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, play – key elements of childhood itself,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “The impact is significant, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Even before the pandemic, far too many children were burdened under the weight of unaddressed mental health issues. Too little investment is being made by governments to address these critical needs. Not enough importance is being placed on the relationship between mental health and future life outcomes.”

“Experiencing negative emotions is normal during a pandemic. However, we need to also realise that mental health issues, if not responded to, can become quite threatening,” said UNICEF Pacific Representative, Jonathan Veitch. “It is crucial that every possible action be taken to protect the mental well-being of all children. But this cannot be achieved in isolation – high level officials, communities, families, parents and even peers, all need to work together to support our Pacific children.”


Children’s mental health during COVID-19

As COVID-19 heads into its third year, the impact on children and young people’s mental health and well-being continues to weigh heavily. According to the latest available data from UNICEF, globally, at least one in seven children has been directly affected by lockdowns, while more than 1.6 billion children have suffered some loss of education.

In Fiji, schools were closed for three months in 2020, and closed again in April 2021 with the second wave of COVID-19, remaining closed as of October 2021. Some 200,000 students, ranging from early childhood education to secondary level have not been able to go to school and to learn in classrooms, and benefit from the many other supports available through schools during this time. The sooner that they can all return safely to the classroom, the better for them, their families and society as a whole.

The ongoing disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people feeling afraid, angry, and worried for their future.


Cost to society

Diagnosed mental disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, depression, eating disorders, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia, can significantly harm children and young people’s health, education, life outcomes, and earning capacity.

While the impact on children’s lives is incalculable, a new analysis by the London School of Economics in the report indicates that lost contribution to economies due to mental disorders that lead to disability or death among young people is estimated at nearly $390 billion a year.


Protective factors

The report notes that a mix of genetics, experience and environmental factors from the earliest days, including parenting, schooling, quality of relationships, exposure to violence or abuse, discrimination, poverty, humanitarian crises, and health emergencies such as COVID-19, all shape and affect children’s mental health throughout their lifetime.

While protective factors, such as loving caregivers, safe school environments, and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental disorders, the report warns that significant barriers, including stigma and lack of funding, are preventing too many children from experiencing positive mental health or accessing the support they need.

The State of the World’s Children 2021 calls on governments, and public and private sector partners, to commit, communicate and act to promote mental health for all children, adolescents and caregivers, protect those in need of help, and care for the most vulnerable, including:

  • Urgent investment in child and adolescent mental health across sectors, not just in health, to support a whole-of-society approach to prevention, promotion and care.


  • Integrating and scaling up evidence-based interventions across health, education and social protection sectors - including parenting programmes that promote responsive, nurturing caregiving and support parent and caregiver mental health; and ensuring schools support mental health through quality services and positive relationships.


  • Breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, through addressing stigma and promoting better understanding of mental health and taking seriously the experiences of children and young people.

In the Pacific region, UNICEF is supporting health, social welfare and education actors to strengthen the capacities of frontline workers to identify, support and refer children who are distressed as a result of COVID-19 or violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation that they may have experienced.

The capacity strengthening initiatives focus on the delivery of psychosocial support and psychological first aid to children.

UNICEF is also partnering closely with the World Health Organization at the global level to support addressing the mental health needs of children.



Notes to Editors

Estimates on causes of death among adolescents are based on data from the World Health Organization (WHO) 2019 Global Health Estimates. Estimates on prevalence of diagnosed mental disorders are based on the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study.

Survey findings on feelings of depression or having little interest in doing things are part of a larger study conducted jointly between UNICEF and Gallup to explore the intergenerational divide in 2021. The Changing Childhood Project interviewed approximately 20,000 people by telephone in 21 countries. All samples are probability-based and nationally representative of two distinct populations in each country: people aged 15-24 and people aged 40 and older. The coverage area is the entire country, including rural areas, and the sampling frame represents the entire civilian, non-institutionalized, population within each age cohort with access to a telephone. The full findings of the project will be released by UNICEF in November.


For further information, please contact:

Zubnah Khan, UNICEF Pacific, Tel: +679 9988137,

Helen Wylie, UNICEF New York, Tel: +1 917 244 2215,

Media contacts

Zubnah Khan
Communication Officer
UNICEF Pacific
Tel: +679 330 0439 Ext. 175
Tel: 9988137


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