International Youth Day: empowering young people starts with mental health

By Niamh Bergin, Mental Health Foundation Policy Volunteer

International Youth Day (IYD) has become an annual celebration, recognising the important place of young people in society, and promoting the potential for youth to be partners in working towards a more equitable and inclusive society.

To enable young people to truly flourish and play a more active role in society, we must first cultivate an environment which protects and promotes good mental health and wellbeing. 

Protecting and supporting the mental health of young people provides them with the best platform from which to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

'The role the empowered youth can play in local communities is becoming more important than ever.'

Mental health stigma, social inequalities and poverty all impact on the emotional wellbeing of young people. In recognition of this, IYDs theme this year looks at poverty, its impact on young people and how we can eradicate the inequalities associated with poverty. 
And who better to lead this than the youth? Indeed, as our population ages (the latest estimates place 17.8% of the UK’s population over the age of 65), the role the empowered youth can play in local communities is becoming more important than ever. 

Youth, defined by the United Nations (UN) as those aged 15 to 24 years old, marks a period of life characterised by increased independence, participation in community life and developing dimensions of identity. Youth also marks a period of transition and change, within which there may be a greater vulnerability to mental health challenges.

Up to 75% of mental health problems are present by the age of 24. Poor mental health can have a negative impact upon wider development during adolescence and has been associated with negative social outcomes such as lower educational attainment and engaging with more unhealthy behaviours like smoking and alcohol consumption. Taking on the sentiment of empowerment and partnership put forward by IYD offers the opportunity to evaluate how mental health can be supported through the transitional periods of youth.
In Scotland, for example, young people have fed back through the Scottish Youth Parliament that enhanced mental health literacy among their peers would help to promote good mental health and reduce stigma. Indeed, including mental health literacy to reduce stigma and promote help-seeking behaviours within a whole-school approach has been proposed as a way for building resilience and enhancing young people’s ability to learn. 

Implementing a whole-school approach to promoting good mental health offers interesting opportunities to the Scottish Government for closing the attainment gap, a priority they have identified for their administration. Adopting a universally proportionate approach within schools, where those most in need are identified and supported, could help ensure that young people are not left behind as they negotiate this period of transition.

Creating the right environment

IYD highlights the empowered position young people can have in society, building links with governments and driving changes. Enabling young people to take active roles in sustainable development requires inclusive policies and engaging environments, and central to these strategies is an understanding of the impact ecological and social factors have on young people’s lives and their mental health.

Again, applying resources where they are most needed and building upon the existing strengths of the community can help ensure young people from all backgrounds are given every opportunity to play a role in building a better future. 

IYD’s focus on creating sustainable and equitable communities provides a valuable and timely lens through which to explore how preventative mental health strategies can empower young people to fulfil their potential. Mentally healthy communities, raising mentally healthy young people, can be encouraged through providing safe spaces for socialising and activities. Creating opportunities and empowering young people to build upon the strengths of their communities could enable sustainable communities to become a reality and encourage a partnership to be formed between the government and young people.

Now is the time

Focus on closing the attainment gap, increasing mental health literacy and tailoring policies to reflect the role environment has on mental health are all steps that will help to build towards  developing strong and resilient communities; not only protecting the wellbeing of these communities but also safeguarding the mental health and wellbeing of future generations. 

It is time for the voices and needs of young people to be heard, their energy and passion harnessed and mental health strategies that will protect those vulnerable, allowing young people all over the country to play their role to their full potential.

Read Emma Wilson's view on why and how we should involve young people in mental health policy