Mental health is important for all irrespective of age, caste, religion, or gender. Yet, it is less spoken and often considered a taboo. A basic human right, mental health is seen as being a crucial component of total well-being, including for children which is often overshadowed.
Every child everywhere has the right to mental health and well-being. We must ensure mental health is reflected in all policies, to ensure children not only realize their right to the highest attainable standard of health but all other rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since there has been a lot of negligence for all ages when it comes to mental health, there are significant gaps in the prevention and treatment of mental health issues in children, adolescents, and caregivers.
According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that, globally, 14% of 10–19-year-olds experience mental health conditions. Yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated, which can be due to a lack of awareness, surrounding mental health, lack of proper and affordable services, etc. Intervention must start early and be for every child.
Acting early is one of the best ways to tackle poor mental health, for example through protecting and promoting mental health and wellbeing in schools and learning environments.
Children spend most of their time at home with their parents and at school with teachers.
As caregivers, we need to look for telling signs of mental health issues such as restlessness, or if the child is too quiet, abrupt changes in behaviour, withdrawal from socialising, or is faring poor grades suddenly, etc. so that parents and teachers can have a conversation with the child without any judgments and provide support and care. In this crucial battle, that is why parents and teachers serve as the first line of defense. Their intimate connections with children can help them create a comfortable environment making it easy for the children to confront any kind of issues they are facing without any hesitance.
Schools can establish counseling services and safe spaces for students to discuss their concerns with a teacher whom they are comfortable with. Such teachers need to be provided with appropriate training. Additionally, parents should foster a supportive home environment, for their children to be able to express them freely.
Children face lots of issues that can result in stress such as the pressure of excelling in a fiercely competitive environment, peer pressure, and bullying, lack of physical activity, and excessive screen time.
In rural areas, many children and adults have limited access to mental health resources, coupled with prevailing stigmas surrounding mental health, which leaves many issues unaddressed. The economic hardships and lack of educational opportunities also take a toll on the emotional stability of rural youth.
Our youth, both in bustling urban centers and remote rural landscapes are fighting this situation silently. Supporting children and teenagers in managing stress is crucial for their emotional well-being and development.
A parent must create an environment at home where their child feels comfortable discussing their feelings and concerns, pay close attention when the child talks, validate their feelings, and let them know you understand. Children often learn by observing their parents.
They must demonstrate healthy stress management techniques, such as deep breathing, exercise, and relaxation techniques, create a consistent daily routine with regular mealtimes, bedtime, and study schedules, and encourage physical activities or hobbies they enjoy, whether it's sports, dancing, or simply going for a walk.
Spending time together as a family which helps build the bond between parents and children and provides a safe space where children can speak up. Make a note that the child is eating a well-balanced diet and gets enough rest each night. Set limits on screen time and encourage offline activities.
A teacher must foster a classroom atmosphere where students feel safe to express their feelings and concerns without judgment. They must show empathy toward students' challenges and understand that they might have external factors affecting their performance.
They must clearly communicate expectations and provide detailed instructions for assignments to reduce confusion and anxiety, encourage students to work together on projects, and foster a sense of teamwork and shared responsibility. Provide constructive feedback and praise for effort, not just achievement, to reduce performance-related stress. It’s important to understand that every child is unique and that it's our responsibility to address their specific issues.
UNICEF's holistic approach focuses on preventing mental health issues by promoting awareness and advocating for children's mental health as a basic child right. UNICEF works with various duty bearers and stakeholders to enhance their capacities for mental health and psycho-social support.
We must join our hands together, to make sure that every child and adolescent has the chance to develop into strong and healthy adults. Let's make a commitment to put our children's and adolescents' mental well-being first by talking to them, for them, because their future is something we can secure by the way we act now.
*Dr Kaninika Mitra, Chief, UNICEF Jharkhand
*Priti Shrivastava, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Jharkhand