As the United Nations celebrates ‘Youth’ in August, it draws attention to “Youth and Mental Health” through a series of events around the world.
The UN hopes that with understanding and support, youth with mental health problems can make a contribution to the world’s “collective future,” wrote Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, in a recent statement.
Twenty percent of the world’s youth population between 14 and 24 suffer from mental health conditions every year, according to the recent UN report “Social Inclusion of Youth with Mental Health Conditions”. Between 85-89% of this age group lives in low-income countries, which lack a “quality” mental health system.
In their transition from childhood to adulthood, youth are most vulnerable to mental health problems due to psychological and emotional changes that happen during this period, according to the report.
Youth lack the problem solving abilities and cognitive ability needed to effectively deal with stressors, said Mona Amer, associate professor of psychology at The American University in Cairo. The lack of these abilities leaves youth vulnerable to psychological disorders as depression, anxiety and other trauma related disorders.
“We cannot make a blanket claim that youth suffer mental problems more than adults,” she said. “But they might not be able to articulate their problems as adults.”
Youth can experience symptoms differently than those experienced by adults with mental diseases. Some diseases, such as depression, can be manifested in teenagers as irritability or other behavioural problems that adults might not recognise, she said.
“Parents will see their son a troublemaker, not suffering from depression.”
Despite the dire need for support for young mental patients, mental health care is not “accessible” for Egyptian youth, she said.
No beds in mental hospitals in Egypt are reserved for children and adolescents only, according to a report published by the World Health Organisation in 2006. While 97% of schools in Egypt have a health professional, only 1% of these professionals are trained in mental health.
“Health professionals don’t receive much training in mental health,” Amer said, “they might not be able to recognise problems.”
In societies suffering from major stressors, such as conflict or socioeconomic difficulties, adults might not be able to offer help to youth, she said.
“They are so much preoccupied with their own mental problems,” she said.
Mental health conditions in this age can significantly affect overall quality of life on the long term, the report said.
Unipolar depressive disorders and schizophrenia are the main causes of disability-adjusted years (DALY) in youth, a measure used to give an indication of overall burden of disease, according to the report. In adults, the main causes of DALYs are ischemic heart diseases and respiratory infections.
In the stage of “identity formation”, mental health conditions can also affect the development of relationships with peers, parents, teachers, and romantic partners, according to the report. Other effects include behavioural health risks such as unsafe sexual behaviour, substance abuse and violence.
Youth with mental health conditions, consequently, enter a “negative cycle of poverty and social exclusion.”
“The social stigma associated with mental illness affects people of all ages,” said Amer, “but some people are under the impression that youth cannot get mental health problems.”