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It's Okay Not to Be Okay
Children are less likely to be severely sickened by COVID-19, but they're being hit hard by the uncertainty, isolation and loss surrounding the pandemic. Economic pressure and lockdowns have amped up family tensions; school closures have left students pining for social interaction. These stressors have contributed to a worrying increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders among those under the age of 18.
The pandemic, says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, "has highlighted just how vulnerable children and young people are." To ensure that they get the mental health and psychosocial support they need, UNICEF and partners are providing an array of programs that are tailored to specific needs and that include helping kids develop healthy strategies for coping with toxic stress.
The first step is often to overcome the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health issues, reminding young people that they are not alone — that it's okay not to be okay.
In Lebanon: after a shocking explosion, an emergency mental health response
Lebanon was already fighting COVID-19 when an enormous explosion rocked the Port of Beirut in August 2020. More than 50 percent of respondents to a UNICEF rapid needs assessment conducted days after the blast said the children in their households were showing signs of trauma or extreme stress. UNICEF and partners worked to provide distressed children with mental health support, distributing psychosocial support kits to families, setting up Child-Friendly Spaces where children could play safely and take a break from the chaos, and connecting those who needed it with more specialized, intensive long-term care.
In the weeks after the explosion, COVID-19 cases more than doubled in Lebanon. Months later, young people from Beirut were still grappling with the aftereffects of the blast combined with the pressures of an economic crisis, all while the pandemic raged on. "You feel anxious all the time," a young woman says in the video above. Another adds: "Corona is not going to end anytime soon. The number of infected people is increasing. It's worse than ever." "I don't know if I have a future," confesses a third.
But slowly, with help from counselors, they are beginning to put the pieces of their lives back together. "We still have hope," a young woman says firmly. "Keep on walking."
In eastern Ukraine: a helpline for young people in crisis
For children in tribal communities: a storybook to share COVID coping strategies
With COVID-19 impacting Native Americans at a higher rate than any other community in the country, the effects of the pandemic have been particularly devastating for children in Native communities in the United States. “It’s taking such a toll on mental health and spiritual health, ... not being able to connect with loved ones or friends or community or have tribal gatherings or ceremonies,” psychologist Victoria O'Keefe told the Navajo Times.
A member of the Cherokee and Seminole Nations of Oklahoma, O'Keefe works with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (JHCAIH), which partnered with UNICEF USA and Johns Hopkins Alliance for a Healthier World to publish a storybook that helps Native American children better understand the pandemic and its effect on their communities. Written by Crystal Kee and illustrated by Joelle Joyner, "Our Smallest Warriors, Our Strongest Medicine: Overcoming COVID-19" teaches children how to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus and encourages strength-based coping skills.
As the pandemic moves into its second year, protecting the mental health of children and young people must be a global priority. "Countries need to give this issue the investment it deserves, dramatically expand mental health services and support for young people in communities and schools, and build on parenting programs to ensure that children from vulnerable families get the support and protection they need at home," Fore wrote in an open letter on Feb. 16.
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Top photo: After running away to escape an abusive home life in eastern Ukraine, 15-year-old Valia called a UNICEF-supported helpline in desperation. Helpline staff connected her with a team of psychologists and social workers who are working with vulnerable teenagers across eastern Ukraine as lockdown takes its toll on mental health, relationships and education. Photos © Aleksey Filippov for UNICEF, illustration © Joelle Joyner