Wellbeing and Mental Health

How young innovators can solve youth mental health challenges

Young people can design the best solutions for youth mental health.

Young people can design the best solutions for youth mental health. Image: UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

Zeinab Hijazi
Global Lead on Mental Health, UNICEF
Olusoji Victor Ladele
Innovation Manager, UNICEF
Marcia Brophy
Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Specialist, UNICEF
Cristina Baeza
Communications Specialist, Office of Global Innovation, UNICEF
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  • One of UNICEF's Office of Innovation key mandates is to harness innovation while maintaining young people at the centre of developed solutions.
  • Young innovators have proven valuable in creating viable solutions that target youth problems.
  • The rising scourge of youth mental health problems as well as the increasing pace of innovation offers prime opportunity to evolve cutting edge solutions.
  • UNICEF and the World Economic Forum are launching the Uplink Youth Mental Health Challenge to encourage human-centred design of solutions by youth, for youth to reach every child.

Gitanjali Rao is an investor, author, scientist and engineer, all at just 16-years old. Far from in name alone, the American was chosen as Time’s Magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year in 2020 for her work using technology to tackle far-ranging social issues from contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction and online violence.

In the latter case, Rao collaborated with UNICEF to develop Kindly, an open-source software interface that uses machine learning to identify “toxic” messages by detecting abusive intent and providing instant feedback for users to reconsider their messages.

“Our generation is growing up in a place where we’re seeing problems that have never existed before and it’s time for us to take action,” says Rao.

Engaging youth directly in the delivery and improvement of new tools designed to support them is one of the most important UNICEF’s Office of Innovation mandates: to harness innovation while maintaining young people at the centre of developed solutions.

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Rising trends, unique solutions

Around the world, psychosocial distress and poor mental health are significant and often silent causes of children and young people’s suffering.

Even before the COVID-19 global pandemic, which upended children’s lives across the globe with imposed lockdowns and school closures, 89 million adolescent boys and girls were struggling with mental health issues that, in many cases, could have been prevented through community-based mental health and psychosocial support.

The statistics are staggering: one in seven adolescents aged 10-19 worldwide live with a diagnosed mental disorder, as defined by the World Health Organisation, and almost 46,000 adolescents die from suicide every year. That’s one young person losing their life every 11 minutes.

In parallel, during COVID-19 the powerful combination of innovation and technology has been on a vertical growth curve, with significant positive impacts on the lives of children and young people across the globe. It has improved their ability to access high-quality education, participate in vital immunization campaigns and benefit from health services. Mental health is no exception.

Our generation is growing up in a place where we’re seeing problems that have never existed before and it’s time for us to take action

Gitanjali Rao, investor, author, scientist and engineer

Addressing youth mental health is a major public health concern, which has been impaired by low levels of youth help-seeking behaviour. Concerns about stigma and confidentiality, shame or embarrassment in discussing personal issues, financial costs or limited access to services are among the many barriers to accessing the much-needed support in this population. In many instances, existing efficacious face-to-face interventions are adapted using digital technology as a means of addressing these barriers.

In fact, new solutions emerge at an accelerating rate, delivering a wide range of mental health interventions through the intelligent and innovative use of technologies. From phones and computers that enable us to access services from anywhere, at any time – to wearables, augmented and virtual reality, video games, artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing – all are creating and facilitating brand new possibilities for early youth mental health prevention and intervention and effective care.

Uplink Youth Mental Health Challenge

Innovation and solutions have to move beyond just the latest, however, to also ensure equity of access and impact for every child regardless of age, ethnicity, disability, geography and gender. And while innovation is often headlined through a technological lens, it can take many forms. There are rich relational, cultural, material, linguistic and ecological resources that are locally available and can contribute to meaningful and sustainable impact.

Bold, evidence-based, ethical, inclusive and effective innovative solutions – digital and non-digital – that improve the mental health of children and young people exist and they are already creating an impact. Through the Uplink Youth Mental Health Challenge, UNICEF, in partnership with the World Economic Forum and partners, is committing to finding and supporting them so that they can grow, scale and multiply their reach and potential to improve lives.

The Uplink Challenge calls for solutions that support young people to access the support and mental health care they need, when they need, unlocking the prevailing stigma around mental health prevalent, particularly, in rural, isolated or conflict-ridden communities that are often affected the most.

The Challenge also calls for solutions built from within, co-created with those same communities that need them and especially by and with their intended users. Young people are often sidelined from active participation during the design stage of innovation. We are missing the point when we don’t engage with youth in finding and scaling solutions designed for them; they want to contribute to building better futures for themselves and contributing to the well-being of entire communities.

The Uplink Challenge has been designed with the idea of human-centred design of solutions by youth, for youth, at the very core. We move with the certainty that young people in the driving seat of sourcing and designing innovative solutions will support us all to accelerate and expand mental health services globally, leaving no child or young person behind.

Call for submissions: Uplink Youth Mental Health Challenge
Call for submissions: Uplink Youth Mental Health Challenge

If you are a young innovator with a groundbreaking solution for mental health wellbeing for young people, submit your innovative idea by 18 April by clicking here.

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