Impact of COVID-19 on poor mental health in children and young people ‘tip of the iceberg’ – UNICEF

Home > Media Contacts and Press Releases > Impact of COVID-19 on poor mental health in children and young people ‘tip of the iceberg’ – UNICEF

  • New analysis indicates nearly $390 billion a year lost to global economy due to poor mental health among young people
  • Annually $8.9 billion lost to the UK economy due to mental health conditions among UK youth
  • Globally and in the UK 1 in 5 young people aged 15–24 surveyed said they often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things
  • The UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK) encourages children and young people to stand up for their mental health rights with OutRight campaign

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 5 October 2021 – Children and young people could feel the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and well-being for many years to come, UNICEF warned in its flagship report today.

According to The State of the World’s Children 2021; On My Mind: promoting, protecting and caring for children’s mental health – UNICEF’s most comprehensive look at the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers in the 21st century – even before COVID-19, children and young people carried the burden of mental health conditions without significant investment in addressing them. The impact of COVID-19 has only added to this burden for millions of children and young people around the world.

According to the latest available estimates, more than 1 in 7 adolescents aged 10–19 is estimated to live with a diagnosed mental disorder globally. Almost 46,000 adolescents die from suicide each year, among the top five causes of death for their age group. Meanwhile, wide gaps persist between mental health needs and mental health funding. The report finds that globally about 2 per cent of government health budgets are allocated to mental health spending *

“It has been a long, long 18 months for all of us – especially children. With nationwide lockdowns and pandemic-related movement restrictions, children have spent indelible years of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, play – key elements of childhood,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “The impact is significant, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Even before the pandemic, far too many children were burdened under the weight of unaddressed mental health issues. Too little investment is being made by governments to address these critical needs. Not enough importance is being placed on the relationship between mental health and future life outcomes.”

Claire O’Meara, Head of UK Policy and Advocacy for the UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK) said: ‘Across the world including in the UK, too many children and young people are suffering from mental health issues, many of which have been worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. If not addressed, these will have a lasting negative impact throughout their lives.

‘The report shows that investing in preventative measures such as parenting programmes, as well as early interventions for children struggling, can stop children and families reaching crisis point and put them on a path to a happier and healthy life.

‘The UK government has acknowledged the scale of the challenge by increasing investment in mental health services for children and young people.  However, without sustained focus, investment and commitment to supporting children, young people and their families, the lasting impact of unaddressed mental health issues will become one of the worst legacies of this pandemic.’

Children’s mental health during COVID-19

According to early findings from an international survey of children and adults in 21 countries conducted by UNICEF and Gallup – which is previewed in The State of the World’s Children 2021 – a median of 1 in 5 young people aged 15–24 surveyed from the UK said they often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things. **

As COVID-19 heads into its third year, the impact on children and young people’s mental health and well-being continues to weigh heavily. Almost all children across the globe have been directly impacted by lockdowns and school closures, the disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people feeling afraid, angry, and concerned for their future.

 Cost to society

Diagnosed mental disorders, including ADHD, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, depression, eating disorders, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia, can significantly harm children and young people’s health, education, life outcomes, and future earning capacity.

While the impact on children’s lives is incalculable, a new analysis by the London School of Economics in the report indicates that lost contribution to economies due to mental disorders among young people is estimated at nearly $390 billion a year. In the UK this number is estimated at $8.9 billion. ***

 Protective factors

The report notes that a mix of experiences, genes and environmental factors from the earliest days, including parenting, schooling, quality of relationships, exposure to violence or abuse, discrimination, poverty, humanitarian crises, and health emergencies such as COVID-19, all shape and effect children’s mental health throughout their lifetime.

While protective factors, such as loving caregivers, safe school environments, and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental disorders, the report warns that significant barriers, including stigma and lack of funding, are preventing too many children from experiencing positive mental health or accessing the support they need.

Young People speaking out – OutRight

This year schools and youth groups across the UK will be working with UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK) to raise awareness of children’s mental health as part of OutRight – UNICEF UK’s annual youth campaign that empowers children and young people to speak out about children’s rights. It is a campaign by children, for children that helps them to promote and protect children’s rights around the world, as well as at home in the UK. For more information visit


The State of the World’s Children 2021 calls on governments, and public and private sector partners, to commit, communicate and act to promote mental health for all children, adolescents and caregivers, protect those in need of help, and care for the most vulnerable, including:

  • Urgent investment in child and adolescent mental health across sectors, not just in health, to support a whole-of-society approach to prevention, promotion and care.
  • Integrating and scaling up evidence-based interventions across health, education and social protection sectors – including parenting programmes that promote responsive, nurturing caregiving and support parent and caregiver mental health; and ensuring schools support mental health through quality services and positive relationships.
  • Breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, through addressing stigma and promoting better understanding of mental health and taking seriously the experiences of children and young people.

“Mental health is a part of physical health – we cannot afford to continue to view it as otherwise,” said Fore. “For far too long, in rich and poor countries alike, we have seen too little understanding and too little investment in a critical element of maximizing every child’s potential. This needs to change.”


Notes to Editors

*Estimates on causes of death among adolescents are based on data from the World Health Organization (WHO) 2019 Global Health Estimates. Estimates on prevalence of diagnosed mental disorders are based on the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study.

**Survey findings on feelings of depression or having little interest in doing things are part of a larger study conducted jointly between UNICEF and Gallup to explore the intergenerational divide. The Changing Childhood Project interviewed approximately 20,000 people by telephone in 21 countries. All samples are probability-based and nationally representative of two distinct populations in each country: people aged 15-24 and people aged 40 and older. The coverage area is the entire country, including rural areas, and the sampling frame represents the entire civilian, non-institutionalized, population within each age cohort with access to a telephone. The full findings of the project will be released by UNICEF in November.

***New analysis from the London School of Economics and Political Science for State of the World’s Children 2021 examined the economic cost of mental health conditions. The research estimates the annual lost contribution to the economy from mental health conditions and self-harm in children aged 0–19 is US$387.2 billion, ballooning to US$420 billion by 2040. These figures are expressed in purchasing power parity (PPP) adjusted dollars. The analysis was conducted by David McDaid and Sara Evans-Lacko of the Department of Health Policy of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Separately, RTI International conducted an analysis for SOWC on the financial benefits of school-based interventions which found those that address anxiety, depression and suicide provide a return on investment of US$21.5 for every US$1 invested over 80 years.

For more information, please contact:

Clare Quarrell, UNICEF UK London, Tel: +44 207 375 6030,

Helen Wylie, UNICEF New York, Tel: +1 917 244 2215,

About Unicef UK
UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

The UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK) raises funds for UNICEF’s emergency and development work for children. We also promote and protect children’s rights in the UK and internationally. We are a UK charity, entirely funded by supporters.

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