Children, Mental Health, & Sustainable Development

Caring for the mental health of children and youth, particularly in adverse situations, is a necessary tool to enable the realization of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development

Mental healthTogether with the NGO Committee on Mental Health, Dianova International organized an event in New York last week to discuss three very important subjects that not often are considered together: children, mental health, and sustainable development. The panel was an effort to raise awareness for the fact that caring for the mental health of children and youth, particularly in adverse situations, is a necessary tool to enable the realization of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Saionara König-Reis, International Relations Manager at Dianova International, created the framework for the debate and presented the interlinkages between the work of Dianova Uruguay in the prevention of problematic substance use among youth with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Within the same context, Maria Pia Belloni Mignatti, UN Representative for the World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP) and Chair of the NGO Committee on Migration spoke about the importance of early childhood development in alleviating childhood trauma, toxic stress and deprivation. In addition, Dr Shervin Shadianloo, M.D., Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist at Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine spoke about Gender and Sexuality minorities in children and youth’s development. Finally, Dr. Dana Kaplan, M.D., Director of Child Abuse and Neglect for the Department of Pediatrics at Staten Island University Hospital spoke about the impact of child abuse to children’s mental health and development.

Mental Health and the Sustainable Development Agenda

NGO Committee on Mental HealthMany practitioners in the field of mental health are not familiar with the international agenda for sustainable development. That can be partially explained by the fact that before 2016, when the Agenda 2030 came into force, mental health was not part of the United Nations or of most of its member states’ agenda – at least not as a specific target to achieve sustaining development.

The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development has 17 goals and 169 targets, also known as the SDGs. The SDGs mark the first time that the international development agenda attempts to integrate the infinite needs of humanity, with the environment, and institutions in one piece. It is an integrated and universal agenda, which in essence means two things: 1. That policies and programs for each of the goals must consider their implications throughout all the SDGs; and 2. It means that, in many cases, full success in one goal can only be achieved if other goals are addressed in coordination.

Mental Health is included in SDG 3, target 3.4, which calls for the promotion of mental health and well-being. Some will argue that this target relates to the very core of human beings and is therefore related to most goals, for the disruption of several aspects of the SDGs can have an influence in one’s mental health. The same applies the other way around: individuals and communities facing mental health difficulties can impact in the development and in the sustainability of human relations among themselves, of their relationships with the environment, and of the functioning of societies itself. Hence the relevance of talking about mental health, particularly of mental health of children and youth (which is often overlooked and misunderstood) in regards to the comprehensive overview of what sustainable development means in the context of the SDGs.

Because the SDGs are promoted as a universal and integrated agenda, the existence of target 3.4 gives us the opportunity to bring to the center of the development discussions, within and outside the UN, the importance of mental health and of having an integrated approach to address it. It also gives us an immense amount of tools to consider mental health implications in a wider frame, making sure that in our own practices we are aware of the role, relevance and influence of different aspects of the SDGs for the mental health of individuals and communities.

Dianova Uruguay: The prevention of substance abuse and the SDGs

To give a concrete example of these interlinkages in a practical work, Dianova Uruguay analyzed their work in preventing problematic substance use among youth through the lenses of the SDGs and in relation to the entire agenda for sustainable development. Not surprisingly, they found a close relationship between almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals with drug related-fields – in prevention, treatment, and policies.

One in five adolescentsIt means that target 3.5 of SDG3, which refers to the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, can only be achieved if worked in respect to food security, education, employment, inequality, justice, gender, cities, the environment, mental health, and other development issues – particularly if we are to address the needs of children and youth in these contexts. In other words, for the sustainability of the agenda and each of its topics, drug use must be considered transversally throughout the Agenda 2030, at the individual, community and national levels.

For instance, when working on drug prevention with children and youth, it is fundamental to go beyond the individual aspects and to address risk factors that can be found in their families and in the surrounding environment where they are mostly inserted, like school, institutions and community. This alone requires intense coordination with multiple targets of the SDGs. In fact, preventive programs with holistic approaches to engage in different areas of the lives of children and youth has proven more effective than single-focused programs. That is because not only they address the psychological aspects of the individual, but they are also concerned with the multiple settings in their surrounding environment.

By doing so, programs and policies will succeed to address risk factors that are often related to the mismanagement of such values and rights inscribed in the sustainable development agenda, and to the systematic neglect of children and youth in vulnerable situations.

Thus, the integrated implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals has the potential to effectively contribute to the specific target in prevention and treatment of substance use. Likewise, as explored by the other panelists in the event, it is also a way to protect children and youth from abuse, violence and gender-based discrimination, and to promote early childhood development for a healthier future of our society.

Saionara König-Reis