A safe and healthy passage from adolescence into adulthood is the right of every child. Being healthy means not merely the absence of illness, but complete physical, mental and social well-being. An essential component of this is being able to realize one’s potential, cope with the stresses of life, build healthy relationships, work productively and participate fully in society. Yet, the mental health of young people is largely ignored and, as a result, depression is the largest cause of disability, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young people worldwide. On this International Youth Day, we declare, ‘Mental Health Matters’!
On their journey to adulthood, adolescents discover who they are, what they aspire to and the risks they face. They come to terms with how their identities relate to those around them and learn to deal with social expectations. Facing stigma and discrimination due to gender, sexuality, HIV, disability or other status can make this passage especially challenging. It is critically important for adolescents to have supportive relationships with teachers, role models and mentors, so that they can emerge into adulthood with positive self-esteem and self-value.
Across the world, 1 in 4 adolescent girls are sexually assaulted and 1 in 3 young women were married before the age of 18. The situation is even worse for millions of adolescents living in areas of conflict or humanitarian crises. When adolescents are prevented from having control over their physical and mental integrity, it has severe consequences for their mental health. The resulting post-traumatic stress disorders and depression multiply the injustice they face and add to the burden of unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection or unsafe abortions. Early exposure to trauma and adversity is an established preventable risk factor for mental disorders.
Being able to access health services is essential forall young people. Yet, young people living with mental health disabilities are prevented from getting the care and treatment they require. Those admitted to psychiatric institutionsoften face degrading treatment and inhuman living conditions. All young people, but particularly those with mental disabilities, are excluded from community life and denied the opportunity to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Many young people with mental disabilities are denied the right to vote, marry and have children, affecting their ability to gain access to appropriate care, integrate into society and recover from their illnesses.
Mental health matters, and the international community has much to do to fulfil its obligations to young people. We must ensure the availability of services to prevent, diagnose and treat mental health conditions. We must end the stigma, discrimination and violations of human rights against people with mental disabilities. We must guarantee a safe and healthy passage through adolescence for all.
UNFPA is working in more than 150 countries and territories around the world to ensure that adolescents and youth have the knowledge, skills and services to enable them to exercise their rights, understand their bodies, and make informed decisions about their health and well-being. Through the Action for Adolescent Girls initiative, we are focusing on their health, safety, education, engagement and empowerment. When adolescent girlshave knowledge, self-esteem, confidence, friends, mentors and health services, they are more able to exercise their rights. Most importantly, we are making sure young people’s voices and priorities are incorporated in development plans and policies.
Excepts of the statement delivered at International Youth Day. The author is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA.