Wellbeing and Mental Health

Why it's crucial to invest in children's mental health during and after crises

A groundbreaking new report commissioned by UNICEF shows the high costs of inadequate support for children’s mental health in humanitarian crises.

A groundbreaking new report commissioned by UNICEF shows the high costs of inadequate support for children’s mental health in humanitarian crises. Image: UNICEF/Adel Janji

Anja Nielsen
Advocacy Specialist, UNICEF
Patricia Landínez
Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Education Specialist, UNICEF
Robert Jenkins
Global Director, Education and Adolescent Development, UNICEF
Zeinab Hijazi
Global Lead on Mental Health, UNICEF
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Mental Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • More children are living in humanitarian emergencies and protracted crises now than at any other time since World War II.
  • Failing to address the mental health and psychosocial needs of children in humanitarian settings could result in a global loss of $203 billion in potential lifetime earnings.
  • School-based complementary mental health promotion, prevention and treatment interventions for crisis-affected children show significant returns on investment.

This morning, hundreds of millions of children around the world woke up to a crisis on their doorstep. More than 400 million children are living in areas under conflict; over 36 million children are displaced from their homes; and as many as 1 billion children are living in countries with extreme vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. More than one in five of them are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition, with the risk of long-term consequences for their futures.

A groundbreaking new report commissioned by UNICEF shows the high costs of inadequate support for children’s mental health in humanitarian crises, and the significant return on investment of school- and community-based mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) interventions. Every child deserves access to quality education and services that respond to their mental health and psychosocial support needs through schools and other services. Their right to learn, and their future economic prospects, depend on it.

The cost to lives and livelihoods

Humanitarian emergencies and protracted crises can have devastating and long-term consequences for children’s mental health. Exposure to severely distressing or traumatic events, compounded by poor or precarious living conditions and lack of access to basic services during natural or human-made emergency events, constitutes a risk factor for the mental health of children and their caregivers. The failure to address mental health problems at their onset can, in turn, affect children’s development, contribute to poor academic outcomes, and even impact their physical health and social development throughout life.

Have you read?

New analysis from UNICEF and RTI International indicates that failing to address the mental health and psychosocial needs of children in humanitarian settings could result in a global loss of $203 billion in potential lifetime earnings. Simply put, the consequences of inadequate mental health support for children affected by crises are far-reaching and cannot be disregarded, as they not only infringe upon their fundamental rights, but also have the potential to leave lasting, detrimental impacts throughout their lives.

The benefits of early intervention

Solutions exist to mitigate these impacts – and deliver significant return on investment.

Supporting children's and adolescents' mental health and well-being within learning environments is crucial to protect them from the devastating effects of crisis and adversity. Evidence demonstrates that school-based MHPSS interventions offer mental health benefits such as improved socio-emotional skills, self-esteem, peer relationships and hope, as well as reduced symptoms of common conditions like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These interventions offer enormous potential for resetting the trajectory of learning and enabling future economic success. UNICEF and RTI International’s analysis shows just how staggering the impact can be.

  • For every $1 invested in community-based group therapy, $39 of lifetime earning loss is averted.
  • For every $1 invested in school-based cognitive behavioural therapy, $57 of lifetime earning loss is averted.
  • And for every $1 invested in social and emotional learning, an astounding $225 of lifetime earning loss is averted.

The evidence is clear: Investing in MHPSS within education is an imperative that demands the commitment of every government and stakeholder, particularly in emergency contexts.

Don't delay mental health action

Immediate and decisive investment in the mental health of children and adolescents in learning environments is an urgent necessity that cannot be delayed any further. Over the past decades, children and adolescents' mental health and well-being have been one of the most neglected and poorest funded areas of humanitarian assistance. 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.

At the same time, schools possess the remarkable opportunity to utilize their influence in fostering an environment that not only supports the academic growth of children, but also cultivates their mental health and well-being, happiness, and overall healthy development.

This is a year of unprecedented global humanitarian need. But it can also serve as a catalyst for resolute action and bringing about meaningful change. At the 2022 Transforming Education Summit (TES), in the context of COVID-19, over half of governments recognized the need to support mental health and well-being of both teachers and students – but very few articulated concrete measures. As the one-year anniversary of the TES just passed, it is imperative that we translate recognition into tangible action. The recommendations and case studies set out in WHO, UNICEF and UNESCO’s briefing note for national governments stand as invaluable tools to steer our collective efforts.

Governments and stakeholders currently find themselves presented with a series of paramount opportunities to capitalize on the progress initiated at TES and forge ahead with resolute and concrete commitments in addressing the mental health and psychosocial needs of children and young individuals affected by crises. These pivotal junctures include the Sustainable Development Summit, the Global Mental Health Summit in October and the Global Refugee Summit in December. By leveraging these influential gatherings, we can collectively propel the cause forward and effectuate meaningful change on a global scale.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

Taking decisive action will yield significant dividends, empowering children to gain the essential skills they need to learn and thrive today and in the future. Now is the time to make strategic investments in mental health and psychosocial support for children affected by crises; safeguarding their well-being both in the present and for a prosperous future.

Full details and methodology of the analysis can be found here. A shorter policy brief is also available.

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Related topics:
Wellbeing and Mental HealthYouth PerspectivesGlobal Cooperation
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