UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's remarks at the European Commission High-Level Conference on the Mental Health Impact of COVID-19

As prepared for delivery

10 May 2021
A team of psychologists and social workers are supporting vulnerable teenagers across eastern Ukraine as lockdown takes its toll on mental health, relationships and education.
A team of psychologists and social workers are supporting vulnerable teenagers across eastern Ukraine as lockdown takes its toll on mental health, relationships and education.

NEW YORK, 10 May 2021 "Commissioner Kyriakides, colleagues, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.

"UNICEF commends the EU’s leadership on mental health and children’s rights. Including its recent adoption of the strategy on the rights of the child and the child guarantee — both of which include a focus on mental health. 

"These milestones — like this discussion — are important and timely.

"The COVID-19 pandemic — and measures like school closures, lockdowns and physical distancing — have exacted a significant toll on children and young people in every country.

"Their physical health. Their families’ economic health. Their learning and development. Their wellbeing and outlook on the future.

"And certainly, their mental health.

"Emerging evidence indicates that the mental health impacts will be significant and long-lasting. Especially in the poorest countries and neighbourhoods. And for the most disadvantaged children — those living with disabilities, migrants and refugees, ethnic minorities, or those living in humanitarian settings like conflicts. 

"The situation is no different in Europe. In fact, one in five adolescents in Europe is experiencing mental health problems.

"A recent OECD survey of youth organizations found that poor mental health is among the biggest impacts of COVID-19.

'And a recent UNICEF rapid review of the impact of COVID on children and adolescents across 77 countries — including 20 European countries — found that children and adolescents are reporting increased stress, anxiety, and substance use.

"They’re out of school. They’re not seeing their friends. They’re not accessing recreational and social activities. They’re facing abuse or neglect. And so often, they’re afraid of reaching out for help because of cultural norms and stigma, which remains very high.

"At the same time, these young people are coming up against a barrier that affects every person struggling with their mental health — a lack of services.

"All countries — rich and poor alike — are facing a huge gap between mental health needs and access to quality services.

"In Europe, only about one-third of people suffering from common mental health conditions receive the care they need. In poorer countries, this figure can be as low as five per cent.

"Low investment in services, limited trained workforce capacity, insufficient awareness and stigma all play a role.

"COVID-19 has made a bad situation even worse with lockdowns putting many mental health services — including counselling and psychosocial support — out-of-reach.

"UNICEF sees this as a critical moment to reimagine mental health systems in the years ahead, and make them more responsive to the needs of our youngest generation — through and beyond COVID-19.

"In fact, the mental health of children and adolescents has long been a critical part of UNICEF’s work.

"From counselling and psychosocial support for children in stressful situations, including conflicts … to training teachers, parents and health and social workers to support children’s mental health … to helping governments incorporate mental health services into their overall care systems including health, education, and social welfare.

"We’re also working closely with researchers in Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden to deepen our understanding of adolescent mental health.

"We’re collaborating with adolescents themselves to develop innovative solutions that can support mental health. This includes using digital platforms to create peer-mentor systems, so young people can help and support each other. We want to scale-up promising solutions like this.

"And our upcoming flagship State of the World’s Children report for 2021 will focus entirely on mental health and wellbeing.

"But there is so much more we need to do.

"And we need to do it together. Including with our European partners.

"UNICEF urges EU Member States to focus on three key areas of work.

"First — work with us to develop “intervention packages” for mental health. This could include home-based solutions like parenting programmes … school-based initiatives, like safe spaces and teacher training … and putting mental health support, like counselling, at the heart of local health and social systems.

"Second — continue lending your voice and advocacy to the mental health needs of children and young people living through humanitarian situations. From children on the move as migrants or refugees in Europe … to those living in conflict situations in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, or so many other places. We need Europe’s help to continue gathering global support and funding around the needs of these children and families who have endured so much. Help us champion these needs in the halls of power.

"And third — share your experiences and best practices not only with one another, but with countries around the world. Europe is home to some excellent models of mental health programming and support — including initiatives that directly involve young people.

"As you strengthen these programmes at home, they can inspire other countries as they seek to better support the mental health of their youngest citizens. 

"Throughout, you can count on UNICEF’s support.

"Together, we can give mental health the priority it deserves across investments, programming and policies.

"And we can support a generation of children and young people as they look to the future with the hope and optimism that every child deserves.

"Thank you."

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