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Childhood and adolescence, keys to mental health

Childhood and adolescence are by far two key stages in reducing and preventing mental health disorders that affect nearly a billion people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Today, World Mental Health Day, from the professor of Psychiatry Celso Arango, we explain the reasons.

Arango, who is currently director of the Institute of Psychiatry and Mental Health of the Hospital Gregorio Marañón de Madrid, explains to EFEsalut the reasons for focusing on the two stages, childhood and adolescence, and delves into the risk factors that trigger mental disorders and that can be prevented.

Broadly speaking, social and economic inequalities, public health emergencies, wars and climate crises are among the structural threats to mental health present around the world.

It should not be forgotten that depression and anxiety increased by more than 25% in the first year of the pandemic and that teenagers were one of the most affected population groups.

But in the specific field of childhood and adolescence, points out Celso Arango, there are some data that reflect very well why this stage is vital to prevent mental health disorders.

The first is that sexual and physical abuse, school bullying and child neglect account for 30% of mental health disorders.

The second is that the average age of onset of 50% of mental disorders is around 15 years, which reinforces the argument that prevention needs to be focused on the earliest stages of life.

This is how Celso Arango understands it, who also points out the importance of taking into account previous stages such as gestationthe party and the parenting the first months of life and first school years.

For this reason, among other actions, the need to enhance socio-emotional learning in schools. Research studies conducted on this show how this learning decreases depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

The specialist at the Institute of Psychiatry at the Gregorio Marañón Hospital leaves one last point to reflect on: the influence of climate change, and the devastating consequences it unleashes (floods, extreme temperatures…) and that affect mental health, especially at the stage of childhood and adolescence.

“Just note that if the air conditioning breaks down on a summer day, the number of crises of anxiety and irritability and violent events increases exponentially.”

childhood adolescents mental health
Infographic provided by Dr. Celso Arango explaining how climate change affects mental health

Childhood and adolescence, a pending subject

In a similar sense has been pronounced the Spanish Mental Health Confederationin considering the child and youth mental health is one of the main pending subjects in Spanish healthcare that urgently needs to be improved.

“Like mental health. For the right to grow in well-being” is the motto selected by the aforementioned confederation to commemorate World Mental Health Day 2022.

The purpose of the slogan is challenge and involve in the care and protection of mental health from early childhood, not only to institutions and decision-makers, but also to young people and teenagers, as well as to families with girls and boys, and to educational communities.

They are meant to pay attention to mental health and give it importance that it has in people’s lives, practically since they are born.

The image, created by designer Antonio Lorente, aims to connect with the younger populationputting them in the foreground and giving a nod to one of the communication channels that young people and teenagers use the most: social networks.

The illustration shows a group of teenagers taking off one selfie in a playful environment, but with different expressions on their faces.

This scene also introduces one of the key themes: the high levels of social media use and the correlation with the appearance of depression, anxiety, stress, internet addiction, explains the confederation.

According to a report by UNICEFit is estimated that more than 13% of adolescents aged 10 to 19 suffer from a mental disorder.

childhood, adolescence, mental health
PHOTO EFE/Neil Munns

Mental health: other risk factors

In addition to the risk factors for the mental health of children and young people already mentioned throughout the text, gender, expectations about employment or climate change, addictions with or without substance, unwanted loneliness can also be added , being a migrant or having survived a war conflict or experiencing an exceptional situation, such as a pandemic.

In fact, over the last few years and especially since the start of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the mental health of children and adolescents in Spain has deteriorated.

Before the pandemic, it was already estimated that around 10% of children and 20% of adolescents suffered from mental disorders with consequences that can last a lifetime.

Currently, teenagers present more anxiety, depressive symptoms, self-harm and suicidal behaviour, according to the Multidisciplinary Working Group on Mental Health in Childhood and Adolescenceof which the Society of Child Psychiatry (SPI)and the Spanish Association of Primary Care Paediatrics (AEPap).

In a paper published this year, the said working group determines how then the first phase of the pandemic saw an increase of up to 47% in children’s mental health disordersand up to 59% in suicidal behaviors, compared to 2019 data.

During the year 2020, and according to the same sources, 14 children under the age of 15 committed suicide in Spain, twice as many as the previous year.

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