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Improving young people’s mental health worldwide

This month, NIHR joined with other leading global funders as a partner in ‘Being’, a new international mental health initiative for young people. In this feature, we focus on youth mental health, and explore how NIHR-funded projects are addressing this long-neglected issue in innovative ways.

Published: 17 November 2022

Youth mental health and wellbeing – meeting a global challenge

'Being' is an international mental health initiative, working toward a world where young people feel well and thrive. It is hosted by Grand Challenges Canada in partnership with Fondation Botnar, United for Global Mental Health and Global Affairs Canada, as well as NIHR. Being will work with young people in LMICs to improve their mental wellbeing and create positive, lasting change in local communities and beyond.

Mental health problems account for an estimated 13% of the global burden of disease. However, in most countries less than 2% of health budgets are allocated to mental health. The scale of this challenge is now being realised by health researchers and funders. 

An estimated 75% of mental health issues start before the age of 24, and young people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are particularly at risk. Many experience trauma as a result of poverty, displacement and bereavement, and have no access to services or support. 

Through a coordinated and strategic approach that combines networks, research, innovation, policy and advocacy, and engagement with young people and people with lived experience, Being will fund and support research and innovative youth-focused approaches in Romania, Tanzania, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Senegal, India, Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Vietnam.

Following its launch earlier this year, Being will work with selected researchers, groups and organizations based in LMICs to analyse local information on young people’s mental health and wellbeing and lead stakeholder and network engagement. These findings and engagements will help determine the next phase of funding for Being and identify opportunities to catalyse change for young people’s wellbeing.

Being will build on the success of Grand Challenges Canada’s Global Mental Health Program. NIHR has been a partner in this since 2019, and currently funds 21 diverse seed and transition to scale high-impact innovations through ODA funding. Many of these focus on supporting young people within their communities.

For example, Child’s I Foundation in Uganda is addressing the mental health needs of young people with experience of institutional care. The team trains social workers and young people, creating a peer network of ‘wellbeing champions’. Over the past year, more than 850 young people aged 10-24 have already benefited from this project. They are developing the skills and resilience to create positive, lasting change in their lives and communities.

NIHR’s wider funding to improve young people’s mental health in LMICs

NIHR has a strong track record funding mental health research in the UK. Since the global health research portfolio launched in 2016, many of our programmes and partnerships are helping to address mental health challenges around the world. 

Several of these have already made strides in understanding and tackling youth mental health challenges. For example, the NIHR Global Health Research Group on Psychosis Outcomes: the Warwick-India-Canada Network has helped improve the diagnosis and clinical care for young people experiencing psychotic disorders. 

Since it was piloted in 2017, the Group’s school programme has reached over 15,000 young people across India. The team developed a standard screening tool to detect mental illness among young people in education, which was the first of its kind. It has helped raise awareness among students and teachers about mental health disorders. 

The Group also developed ‘Saksham’, a home-based psychosocial care booklet and mobile app. This has helped support patients with psychotic disorders and their caregivers. The team’s findings have been published in journals including BMJ Open and Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Working with the World Psychiatry Association, they are helping address these issues in other LMICs.

In 2018, NIHR opened a new targeted funding call through the Research and Innovation for Global Health Transformation (RIGHT) programme to specifically fund new research to improve mental health. It awarded a total of £20 million to six projects to improve outcomes for the poorest people affected by mental health issues in developing countries.

One of these, Project SPARK, is supporting African communities to improve the mental health of children with developmental disorders and their caregivers. Such children often suffer stigma and discrimination. They may be locked in their homes, do not attend school and receive no formal support.

Working with communities in Ethiopia and Kenya, the SPARK team has succeeded in raising awareness of the needs of these families. Thanks in part to their work, child developmental disorders are now a priority in Ethiopia’s new national Mental Health Strategy.

Looking to the future – mental health for all

In recent years, the global health community and funders have begun to take action to address the wider challenges of mental health. This includes the damage caused by social stigma and discrimination, which is also the theme of a Lancet Commission report published last month. 

NIHR is sustaining and enhancing its focus on mental health research in LMICs. Many of the new cohort of NIHR Global Health Research Units, Groups and Centres are planning innovative projects. For example, the Global Health Research Group on Promoting Children's and Adolescent's Mental Wellbeing in sub-Saharan Africa aims to design and test a mindfulness intervention to promote the mental wellbeing of children in sub-Saharan Africa so that they can enjoy their childhood and develop to their full potential.

As a funder, and a partner in the ‘Being’ initiative, NIHR hopes to embed learning across different projects and approaches. Founded on community involvement, they can help to strengthen communities' capacity for learning, and for sharing their knowledge and experiences with others.

For World Mental Health Day 2022, the World Health Organization called on partners to make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority. Mental health research and innovation with and for young people is key. It can drive social change that will enable people of all ages and future generations to live free from fear and stigma, and access care and support. 

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