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Every war is a war against children“, said Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, 100 years ago. Children and young people are brutally affected by the terror of war, conflicts and other humanitarian disasters. On this World Mental Health Day, we must recognize the impact of human-made disasters on children and young people.

Whether from armed conflict or natural disasters due to the climate crisis, young people often endure unthinkable distress.

How Children are Affected by War and Conflict

Forced to flee their homes, many are tragically separated from their parents and caregivers, losing the fundamental sense of security they so desperately need. Consequently, they face the relentless threat of violence, severe injuries, and the harrowing prospect of being recruited into armed groups. As communities crumble and towns become militarized, access to basic necessities like clean water, healthcare, and education becomes a distant dream.

Since 2005, the UN has verified 315,000 grave violations against children committed by parties to conflict in more than 30 conflict situations. These include:

  • More than 120,000 children killed or maimed.
  • At least 105,000 children recruited or used by armed forces or armed groups.
  • More than 32,500 children abducted.
  • More than 16,000 children subjected to sexual violence.
  • At least 16,000 attacks on schools and hospitals.
  • More than 22,000 instances when humanitarian access has been denied for children.


As we know with verified statistics, the true toll is likely to be a lot higher.

Young People’s Mental Health in Conflict and Crises

These unspeakable harms to children and young people lead to a devestating stress on their mental health. Anxiety, depression, and stress-related problems relentlessly erode their ability to grow up healthy and happy. Children exposed to conflict often grapple with severe emotional stress that can result in lifelong mental health and psychosocial issues. These invisible wounds are just as debilitating as physical injuries but are often overlooked.

“Refugees face harsh conditions that put their mental health under significant stress. While many of them show remarkable resilience, some need extra support to rebuild their lives.”

UNHCR

UNHCR also reveals in a new report that close to 7 million refugee children are out of school. Being left out of school is a disgrace for young people’s mental health and their abilities to reach their goals.

“Unless their access to education is given a major boost they will be left behind. This will not help meet other goals for employment, health, equality, poverty eradication and more,” writes Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Social Media can Exacerbate the Toll on Young People’s Mental Health

As conflicts and crises continue and escalate around the world, many people use social media to share news and stories. Research shows that social media has a dangerous effect on young people’s mental health, often leading to increasing rates of anxiety. In addition, unverified news, conspiracy theories and harmful content flourishes on these platforms. Young people become witnesses of the terror and trauma, increasing the toll of these crises on their mental health.

On this World Mental Health Day, we must remember the children and young people around the world and in our own communities who are directly or indirectly affected by war, conflicts, climate crisis and other humanitarian emergencies.

Five things you can do to support young people’s mental health

  1. Start a conversation and listen. Speak to a young person in your network about mental health, listen to their stories and lived realities without trying to go in and fix it for them. They are often agents of change and can lead in the change that needs to be realized. However, if they do need help, make the connections they need to access mental health services or psychosocial support.
  2. Support organizations that provide mental health support. Whether through donations, volunteering or advocacy, organizations that provide mental health services to young people are imperative to create lasting change.
  3. Break the silence. We must break the silence surrounding young people’s mental health. We also need to ensure that young people are visible in the conversations and debates around war, conflicts and other disasters. Young people’s stories and lived realities need to be heard.
  4. Lead by example. Take care of your own mental health. Be aware of your own consumption of digital and social media. Seek support. Reach out to others. Be the change you hope young people will have in their own lives. When entering into conversations about a war, think about the toll it has on children and young people.
  5. Listen to young people now. Continue to listen. Hear what young people really want. One way of doing so is to join the Global Forum for Adolescents, where over a million young people’s needs and wants will be presented. Another one is through the Global Girls Summit at the UN.

We must always turn to compassion instead of divisiveness.

Children and young people are deeply affected by war and crises. The mental health burden that they bare is still difficult to comprehend, and research is only uncovering the surface of a global mental health crisis. With this in mind, we must let compassion lead. Polarization and divisiveness serves no purpose in improving mental health outcomes for young people. So, how will you let compassion lead you to take action today?

The Conversation

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