UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore remarks at Leading Minds Conference

As prepared

08 November 2019
On 23 September 2019 at UNICEF Headquarters, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore speaks at “Early Childhood Development in Emergencies – What’s New?” a High-Level event.
On 23 September 2019 at UNICEF Headquarters, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore speaks at “Early Childhood Development in Emergencies – What’s New?” a High-Level event, hosted by UNICEF and Lego Foundation, to present the rational for and best practices in Early Childhood Development (ECD) in crisis contexts, in order to encourage investments in this critical area.

ITALY, 08 November, 2019

"Good morning, and welcome everyone to the first day of the Leading Minds 2019 Conference.

"Thirty years ago, UNICEF and the Government of Italy joined forces to establish the Innocenti Research Centre. The world’s first-ever place of research dedicated to children’s issues. The challenges they face. The deprivations many of them live with. And the solutions that can help them overcome these barriers.

"It’s a place of learning. Of debate. And of generating the data and research that can improve — and save — children’s lives

"This week’s conference is an opportunity for all of you to contribute to this legacy. We need your ideas, research and solutions to address the crisis of our time: mental health.

"Young people in every country are living with rising rates of depression. Anxiety. Self-harm. And suicide.

"As governments, UN agencies, civil society, foundations, families and communities grapple with the best ways to serve these young lives — from detection, to prevention, to treatment — we’re faced with another inescapable truth. That our knowledge of the roots, causes and treatments of mental illness are still very much in the earliest stages.

"That’s where you come in.

"First — we need your expertise and wisdom to help governments and organizations like UNICEF and WHO design new approaches, strategies and programming to support these young lives.

"Are we diagnosing mental disorders in the right way?

"What programmes or treatments work?

"Are there affordable and easily implemented interventions that could be scaled-up to reach the poorest and most vulnerable children around the world?

"Including those living through traumatic experiences like conflicts and natural disasters?  

"Second — As we design better programmes, we also need to draw more funding and investment to this crisis.

"It’s estimated that low and middle-income countries spend less than one per cent of their total health budget on mental health — in many countries, that budget is zero. In high-income countries, the picture isn’t much better — about five per cent.

"This is insufficient to address the scale of the challenge. We must do far more to close the gaps between the prevention, treatment and counselling services that children and young people need and the funding to get us there.

"At the same time, we must incorporate mental health into routine community-based primary health care services.

"All countries should give this major health issue the budgetary priority it deserves, and make services accessible in the same way that vaccinations, nuthird trition screening and other basic health services are made available.

"And — we need your voices to join UNICEF and WHO as we build the necessary public and political will to address this crisis. Nothing will be done without this vital ingredient.

"We must build the case that poor mental health carries a cost not only to children and their families — but to economies and public budgets, which will be further stretched if we fail to act.

"Early detection can avert these costs.

"Most signs of mental illness begin to manifest themselves when people are young — when they are children. Half of all lifetime mental health disorders start before the age of 14.

"So prevention, therapy, treatment and rehabilitation for children and young people is an investment not only in their futures — but a means to avoid further social and health care costs down the road.

"In other words: the moral case to act is matched by a practical, economic case.

"UNICEF is committed to making this case. The next regular edition of our annual State of the World’s Children report will focus exclusively on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people around the world. A great opportunity to continue the discussion we’re starting here in Florence.

"But all of this work — from programme design, to increased funding, to building the public and political will to do something about this issue — requires another fundamental ingredient. It requires breaking down the barriers of stigma, and making it ok to talk about mental health.

"At home. In the community. At the workplace. And in political and policy arenas.

"And in schools. We are grateful to have with us today the Minister of Health of Kazakhstan, Yelzhan Birtanov. Minister Birtanov will later tell us how Kazakhstan successfully addressed mental needs among its adolescents through innovative policies in schools.

"Mental health is now part of mainstream primary health care services in Kazakhstan — viewed not as a taboo, stigmatizing subject, but as a legitimate and treatable health concern like any other.

"Let’s learn from examples like this.

"Let’s learn from each other in the coming days.

"And — most of all — let’s learn from the brave young people who have joined us here to share their experiences and their expertise.

"Let’s take action for them, and with them. And as we’ve done with so many health challenges in the past — smallpox, child survival, the HIV pandemic — let’s give this issue the priority it deserves. Thank you."

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