Mental health

The problem

More than 1 billion children are exposed to some form of violence every year. This violence can have a devastating impact on children’s mental health.

Exposure to violence is often traumatic, and it can evoke toxic responses to stress that cause both immediate and long-term physiological and psychological damage. The impact of violence on the development of children’s brains is of particular concern – especially when such exposure to violence is prolonged - as this is linked with consequent emotional and behavioural disorders, as well as poor health, educational and social outcomes. The consequences of violence include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, substance use, sleep and eating disorders, and suicide.

The impact of violence on mental health changes across the life course, endures into adulthood and can be transmitted across generations. The consequences for mental health can differ depending on the form of violence children experience and the setting in which it occurs. Research has highlighted not only the inter-connected nature of different types of victimization, but also the way in which their cumulative impact can severely impair a child’s development.

There is an urgent need for more action to prevent and respond to the threat posed by violence to children’s mental health. Yet there are few services tailored to children’s needs, even though mental health is consistently identified by children themselves as a major concern. As a result, few children with mental health issues receive the right support at the right time.

However, there is growing evidence on cost-effective interventions to tackle this problem. These interventions are underpinned by a better understanding of the risk factors at the level of the individual, the family, the community and society. We also know more about the protective factors, such as building children’s resilience to adversity.

In building a protective and nurturing environment, it is essential to prioritize prevention and early intervention. Mental health services must be scaled up as an essential component of universal health coverage. They must also be a core component of the response to COVID-19 and to post-pandemic reconstruction.

Quality services should be provided in the community, avoiding institutionalization and over-medicalization where possible. This requires far more investment, including investment to ensure the right number and distribution of skilled professionals. Further investment is also needed to address the lack of data and research on children’s mental health. And crucially, robust monitoring and accountability frameworks must be put in place to track progress.

The Special Representative is committed to mobilizing and supporting Member States in taking stronger action on ending violence against children and supporting their mental health. To that end, the Special Representative dedicated her 2020 Annual Report to the Human Rights Council to this topic. The Special Representative has also developed an in-depth report on mental health and violence against children, highlighting examples of good practice and evidence-based interventions. The report has been informed by the input of experts, other United Nations entities working on child and adolescent mental health and the views of children themselves.

Children's work around mental health during the Covid19 pandemic

As a global advocate for the protection of children from violence, it is our duty to work with and for children. Currently there is an urgent need for more action to prevent and respond to the threat posed by violence to children’s mental health. The COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity for governments worldwide to reassess priorities. It is essential to invest in children’s services and to build a protective and nurturing environment for children and with children. In the past year, we conducted a map of the many child-led actions carried out by children across regions. One of our findings was that children are aware of their peers’ mental health needs and are taking actions to support each other. After all children are the primary experts in these matters and their concerns, suggestions and actions should be taken into consideration in the building back better recovery phase of COVID-19. With this project we asked children to share their views and contribute to building a better world for all  in the COVID19 aftermath and commit to contribute to make it a reality. 

Learn more about children's work around mental health.

Key Facts

  • Violence and other adverse childhood experiences can have devastating immediate and long-term effects on mental health

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19 year-olds

  • Worldwide, 10-20 percent of children and adolescents experience mental health conditions

  • Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14

  • Mental and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability in children and young people