Mental Health

How innovative solutions can support and improve young people's mental health

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Young people need fully funded solutions that allow them to address their own mental health. Image: Unsplash.

James Sale
Director of Policy, Advocacy and Financing, United for Global Mental Health
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Mental Health

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  • Young people are increasingly experiencing common mental conditions such as anxiety and depression.
  • Mental health support and treatment is underfunded around the world and there is little to no access in low-income countries.
  • New research highlights the financial viability of investing in mental health services and innovative projects are proving their worth.

Investing in young people’s mental health is one of the smartest investments there is. But, as the statistics show, it’s not an investment the world has been willing to make.

Right now, mental health conditions constitute 14% of young people’s disease burden. They represent estimated economic losses of $387 billion per year in young people’s human potential. And suicide is the fourth leading cause of death of young people worldwide. It does not have to be this way.

Funding for mental health

Young people need fully funded solutions that allow them to address their own mental health – whether that is campaigns to raise awareness and reduce stigma; or services that provide care and support. But it is clear that young people’s mental health is not getting the financial support it needs.

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Globally, governments spend an average of just 2.1% of their overall health budgets on mental health, and only a small fraction of this modest expenditure goes to the most vulnerable, such as children, adolescents and caregivers.

The failure to properly fund mental health has resulted in huge coverage gaps in mental health services – as wide as 90% in some low-income countries. And the funding that does exist is usually focused on central mental health facilities often far from young people’s homes, not the community-based care which is a more effective – and cheaper – approach.

Reasons for hope in mental health prevention

The current picture may look bleak, but there are very good reasons for hope. United for Global Mental Health has done the calculations, and found that funding access to quality mental health services for all, including young people, is financially achievable.

To create a world where, by 2030, half of all people can access essential services for five of the most common mental health conditions – anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, epilepsy and psychosis – would cost just over $11 per person in 2030. To enable 90% of all people to access such services requires an annual increase in mental health financing of just $0.26 per person between now and 2050.

Our research suggests that this investment could prevent 1.5 billion cases of those five common mental health conditions, and avert over 6 million deaths.

Innovative mental health solutions in action

Strategic investment in new and innovative solutions for young people’s mental health is the first step towards making these potentially incredible results a reality. The successful solutions the UpLink Challenge supports and promotes need sustainable investment to achieve long-term reform. That’s why approaches like UpLink can be the catalyst to wholescale systemic change – as long as governments and other donors have the foresight to invest in the solutions it generates.

One example of increased investment is in Peru where finance has followed the prioritisation of mental health. In 2014, a stable, long-term source of domestic financing for mental health was put in place through a 10-year budget specifically committed to the scale-up of community-based mental health, and linked to achieving specific results (prior to that, mental health was financed from the NCD budget). Moreover, this funding has grown over time, from $25 million to over $100 million.

In 2019 New Zealand announced a new Wellbeing Budget that focussed on five areas: mental health, child well-being, supporting the aspirations of the Māori and Pasifika populations, building a productive nation, and transforming the economy. The Wellbeing Budget included NZ$1.9 billion, a record in New Zealand, for which finance can be spent on non-governmental organizations where new solutions can be developed and scaled up. It is, however, critical to ensure that finance is spent well and effectively.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

These examples are, unfortunately, the exception but where adequate and sustainable finance is available innovative solutions have a far greater chance of success. There are innovative solutions ready or close to ready that with the right investments can reach many young people.

The World Health Organisation’s Scalable Technology for Adolescents to Reduce Stress (STARS) project is a digital psychological intervention for adolescents aged between 15-18 years old experiencing high level of psychological distress that impairs daily functioning, for example ability to study, or carry out their duties. Young people access content through a chatbot which guides through psychoeducation, goal setting, emotion regulation, behavioural activation, thought-challenging, social support and problem-solving.

This approach is also being developed by civil society organizations, such as in the Philippines where #MentalHealthPH are working to develop mental health technology that is more culturally and ethically applicable to the Filipino context.

This type of innovative approach to help young people address their mental health can be adopted by national or local mental health systems and can make a big impact. But for this to happen, catalytic investments from donors need to be made within a public financial landscape for mental health that can sustain success.

Only by investing now will the next generation grow in a world where no young person is denied the mental health support they need

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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