Catherine Bradshaw, professor of education and associate dean at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, will present a report addressing mental health problems in youth to the United Nations on Aug. 12 as part of the U.N.’s annual International Youth Day observance.
Asked to review the current research and literature on global efforts to prevent behavioral and mental health problems in youth, Bradshaw will participate in a panel discussion to explain her report, “Social Inclusion of Youth with Mental Conditions.”
This report highlights the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people worldwide. She plans to document the level of burden and disability associated with mental health conditions, particularly among those for whom the problems start during youth.
Mental health conditions can significantly impact youth development and social and economic integration, Bradshaw said. Certain youth are at particular risk of mental health conditions, such as those who are exposed to trauma and war, who are homeless and street-involved, or are orphaned or involved with the juvenile justice and mental health systems. The accumulation of these and other risk factors contributes to the increased likelihood of impairment and disability, she said.
“The ultimate goal of this work is to prevent the onset and the escalation of behavior and mental health issues in youth,” Bradshaw said, “while the focus of this U.N. report is to call governments worldwide to pay closer attention to prevention.”
Bradshaw’s report highlights both opportunities and challenges to preventing behavior and mental health problems in youth worldwide and includes exemplar efforts and effective programs used in countries around the world.
Bradshaw, who is also affiliated with Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, has a particular interest in the prevalence of mental health problems in war-torn and low-resource areas, such as Uganda and the Middle East, which have typically overlooked the impact of these issues on youth. Her report describes how children displaced by war may be resettled in high-income countries that have greater resources for mental health care than their home country; however, even then there are additional challenges that can adversely affect their mental health, such as discrimination based on race or culture, bullying, immigration policies and low community connectedness, Bradshaw said.
Those youth who are able to integrate more readily into their new community, while still retaining aspects of their cultural identities, have been found to have a lower risk of mental health problems after migration. However, children who are affected by conflict and either remain in their own country or are displaced to another low- or middle-income country often have few options for care services due to continued political instability and/or a lack of resources or funding for mental health care, she said.
Bradshaw’s report also aims to bring attention to programs that work. It summarizes prevention programs that have demonstrated promising effects in countries around the globe, including programs that promote coping and emotion regulation skills to help protect and emotionally bolster children from the effects of war. More research is needed to document their impacts in war-torn areas, such as Eastern Europe, Bradshaw said.
“It is a challenge for governments and NGOs to commit to prevention efforts like these when large portions of their populations don’t have access to fresh water or are in constant fear for their safety,” she said. “But the irony in these cases is that both safety, access to basic needs and mental health are critical to functioning fully as human beings.”
Youth living in these volatile areas often experience high levels of exposure to violence, in addition to witnessing stigma associated with mental health issues. The combination of these two phenomena, according to Bradshaw, leaves them at particular risk of behavioral and mental health issues.
One shortcoming in the efforts to introduce and expand prevention efforts in these areas is the lack of data and understanding of exactly what is happening with youth.
“Unfortunately, there are few, if any, resources to collect data on mental health issues in adolescents in these areas,” Bradshaw said. “As a result, we don’t really know how prevalent mental health issues are, or what the impact high levels of violence exposure have on the youth living there.”
Bradshaw said she is pleased the United Nations is elevating the importance of the issue of mental conditions for the world’s youth. “The first step is awareness-raising and a call to action,” she said.
Her hope is that the U.N. will ultimately aid in the research efforts and collection of data around the prevalence of mental health issues in ongoing conflict and post-conflict areas by, for example, adding a provision for mental health research when they fund an economic initiative.
At the conclusion of International Youth Day, Bradshaw plans to stay connected to the work the U.N. is doing in the prevention of mental health issues in youth as they chart their work in this area.