UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell's remarks at the Promoting and Protecting Learners’ Mental Health in Schools UNGA high-level event
As prepared for delivery
NEW YORK, 20 September 2022 - "Your Majesty, Excellencies, Colleagues,
"I am very happy to welcome you to UNICEF House.
"We are honored by the presence of Queen Letizia and deeply grateful for her leadership on this urgent issue.
"I would also like to thank WHO, UNESCO, and the Government of Thailand for co-organizing this event – and for their invaluable partnership.
"This has already been a historic week. The Transforming Education Summit has brought the world together to confront the global learning crisis – to commit to doing something about it.
"That crisis is urgent. Millions of children are still out of school – and millions of children are in school but not learning basic skills.
"We are failing these children. But we can change it, and we must – using every tool at our disposal to support their learning, whatever their circumstances. That includes supporting their mental health and well-being.
"World leaders and many other partners have just endorsed the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning – and pledged to invest in the mental health and well-being of every learner.
"They need to deliver on that pledge quickly.
"Even before the pandemic, mental health conditions in children and adolescents were on the rise.
"UNICEF estimates that 1 in every 7 children between 10 and 19 years old was living with a diagnosed mental health condition.
"But the pandemic has made it worse. Virtually every country in the world has seen the problem grow. Children growing up in the midst of conflict and other crises face even greater challenges to their mental health and well-being – to say nothing of their education.
"But for much too long, the mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents has been one of the most neglected – and least well-funded – challenges. Many governments still spend only a few cents per capita directly on mental health – and allocations from official assistance are inadequate to meet rising needs.
"But thanks to many of you here today and so many others, that is beginning to change. We are seeing deeper engagement on this critical issue. Mental health has become part of our daily dialogue -- in our media outlets, social media feeds, boardrooms, and homes.
"Now we need to make it central to our efforts to transform education – so that every school supports the mental health and wellbeing of every learner and every educator.
"With the challenges to children around the world multiplying, we urgently need to adapt the systems they rely on to survive and thrive – especially education systems.
"I have traveled recently to schools in Ukraine, to schools for displaced children in Democratic Republic of Congo, to schools in Afghanistan, and many other places where children already face so many challenges.
"I can tell you that these children depend on schools not only for their education, but for their sense of security, for their emotional stability, and for their sense of hope in the future.
"When they get the support they need, even children who have lived through extreme hardship can heal and begin learning again.
"And all children, whatever their circumstances, benefit from a learning environment that nourishes and supports their minds, their health, and their well-being.
"In times like these, schools must be more than places of academic learning. Schools must play a larger role.
"Today, together with UNESCO and WHO, we are sharing new recommendations, organized around five priority actions that national governments need to take to promote and protect every learner’s mental health and well-being.
"Let me touch on these briefly as a basis for our discussion.
"First, schools need to create an enabling environment for positive mental health and wellbeing. Among other things, that means embedding social and emotional learning and mental health literacy in curricula – and making sure policies and programmes are informed by individual students’ needs and capacities.
"Second, we need to expand early intervention and mental health services and support in school.
"We know that many mental health conditions begin to manifest in adolescence – and can last a lifetime. Educators who are trained to identify and respond to these emerging conditions can get children the help they need – whether that is a school counselor or outside support.
"Third, we need to support the mental health and well-being of teachers and school personnel too. Educators face enormous pressure – especially in emergency situations. That means making sure there are policies and systems in place – and ensuring that classroom teachers don’t have to take on the role of trained mental health professionals.
"Fourth, we need to strengthen mental health and psycho-social support in the education workforce. That includes ensuring that every teacher, school manager, and education professional has access to learning opportunities and training to support student mental health and well-being.
"Fifth – and this really cuts across everything – schools need to engage and collaborate with families and the community. And students themselves must play a role in building safe, nurturing learning environments. Incorporating their voices, their perspectives, and their experiences is critical.
"Supporting children so they can reach their full potential is fundamental to UNICEF’s mission – and supporting the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents is an organizational priority.
"We are entirely committed to this effort, and to working with Member States and all of our partners, across every sector, to ensure that the mental health needs of all children and youth are met.
"I look forward to hearing from all of our speakers today – and especially the young people here – about how we can drive change for millions of children and adolescents, together."