Good mental health for children is crucial for their development to their full potential, for their ability to learn and function in their family and to build the self-confidence they will need to grow happy and healthy. Being mentally healthy during childhood is also a pre requisite to thrive as an adult and to contribute to communities and societies.
However, still too many children are suffering from poor mental health. According to UNICEF, 9 million adolescents are living with mental health disorders in Europe and children in alternative care are disproportionally affected. 30% of adult care leavers experience mental health disorders - this is almost double the estimates for the general population. They are highly vulnerable to adverse childhood experiences (e.g., separation from the family, loss of a parent, abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse) and exposure to such adverse childhood experiences is associated with a higher prevalence of mental disorders that may persist into adulthood. Separation from the family itself often causes distress or trauma which has a long-lasting impact on children’s mental health.
Children and young people SOS Children’s Villages work with are very vocal on the need to promote good mental health in alternative care settings. Ioanna from Greece says: “Alternative care, rather than just giving you a place to live, should also be about your mental health. It is easier to deal with trauma at a young age as part of the process of growing up than to survive adulthood with all these issues. […] Sometimes, you need solutions like therapy. But you always need someone to ask you how your day was and mean it. Someone who cares for you, humanely.”
As unstable and difficult family environments (violence, food insecurity, job insecurities, decrease options for livelihood) can have negative effects on the mental health of children, addressing the root causes of stress in the families can have beneficial effects on promoting good mental health for children and the rest of the family. Adequate mental health and psychosocial support for families at risk can therefore be one key factor in preventing child-family separation.
Most children will not require clinical interventions if they are adequately supported and if families are strengthened. This is why, children’s mental health should be at the heart of the upcoming EC Communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health, in line with commitments made under the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the EU Child Guarantee.
For SOS Children’s Villages, it is crucial that the European Union and its Member States:
- Ensure the upcoming initiative includes a clear commitment to prioritize the needs of children and youth.
- Highlight concrete measures to respond to the specific needs of children in situations of vulnerability and increased risk of adverse childhood experiences.
- Focus on both the prevention and treatment of mental health issues of children.
- Commit to address the root causes of stress in families and family separation (such as violence, poverty, economic difficulties, food insecurity, unequal access to basic social services).
- Guarantee access for children and parents to free of charge, quality mental health services.
- Support the provision of mental health and psychosocial support in alternative care and include trauma informed practices.
- Ensure a training for social workers and teachers on mental health, including on adverse childhood experiences and trauma so they have the knowledge and skills to support psychosocial and mental health of children.
Promoting children and young people's good mental health and wellbeing will require ambitious policy goals, quality programmes and adequate financing. The upcoming European Commission Communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health provides the EU with an important instrument to turn political commitment into a concrete set of actions that have a lasting impact for children, young people, their families and communities at large.