Youth, Mental Health and Addiction

On the occasion of the World Children’s Day, Dianova organized a webinar with the participation of several experts

Screenshot of the event

Screenshot of the event, with Gisela Hansen, centre; thumbnails from left: Xochitl Mejia, Celia Prat, Patricia Puigdevall, and Simón Tavera

The impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, the therapeutic approach, the situation of the most vulnerable groups and the role of substance use were among the topics discussed at the round table held on 23 November. World Children’s Day, celebrated every year on November 20, is an opportunity to take inspiring actions to defend, promote and celebrate the rights of children and adolescents through dialogue and initiatives aimed at building a world that is more just. On this occasion, Dianova wanted to highlight the situation of young people in relation to social change and the impact of addictions, whether substance-related or not, on mental health.

Before going into the details of the event, it would have been impossible to celebrate this day without mentioning the situation of children living in the various war zones of the world, and more specifically in the Gaza Strip.

According to Save the Children, some 6,000 children have died so far in this war, more than the total number of children killed in any other global conflict since 2019. No child should ever be considered as a war target, by any party.

Online roundtable

The expert panel examined the challenges faced by young people with addiction-related mental health problems and identified actions to be taken.

The panel, which included Celia Prat, coordinator of FAD Juventud (Spain); Patricia Puigdevall, coordinator of Novasalud and the training department of Dianova Uruguay; Simon Tavera, President of the Mexican Federation of Therapeutic Communities; and Xochitl Mejia, Founder and Therapeutic Director of Centro de Desarrollo Humano Tonalli (Mexico), expressed different points of view and perspectives according to the regions of the world from which they came. The event was moderated by Dr. Gisela Hansen of Dianova.

Taking into account the psychological suffering of young people

Patricia Puigdevall insisted on the need to listen better to young people, to take into account their situation, to validate their feelings and to try to look beyond them in order to serve them better. Adolescence is a relatively poorly understood period, but it should be understood as a stage in itself and not simply as a process leading to adulthood. The adolescent is a person in his or her own right, not simply an adult in the making, as they are often viewed from a therapeutic perspective. Therefore, as a therapist, it is important to encourage genuine listening to their needs without ever underestimating them.

The mental health of young people in conflict with the law

Simón Tavera focused on the adolescents in conflict with the law, one of the most vulnerable and complex groups to diagnose. This group faces higher levels of aggression and violence, suffers from greater cognitive deficits, and is confronted with higher levels of family abandonment and social exclusion.

In order to address mental health and addiction issues, we need a solid technical and normative foundation. Deprivation of liberty must be accompanied by a developmental process that promotes bonding and the full use of individual capacities, as part of a commitment to restorative justice.

Mental health and the situation of young people

Young people with mental health problems today face higher levels of social exclusion, discrimination and educational difficulties. These are all risk factors for addiction.

Celia Prat presented Spanish data that highlighted the complexity of the situation of young people. She highlighted the high rates of depression, anxiety disorders and over-the-counter use of psychotropic drugs. In general, girls are more affected than boys, and data trends are less favourable for young people than for adults.

Worryingly, only half of young people with mental health problems have sought professional help, and one of the main reasons for not doing so is financial. They simply can’t afford it. Worse still, 35% of young people with mental health problems haven’t told anyone, making the problem even more invisible.

Boy alone

WHO data shows that one in seven 10-19 year-olds experiences a mental disorder, accounting for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group – Photo by Fernando @cferdophotography on Unsplash

The role of substance use

Xochitl Mejía stressed the importance of analyzing the role of drug use in the situation of young people. Again, it’s a matter of really understanding the meaning of substance use. Drug use can give young people a sense of freedom from adult control, of playing a greater role, of belonging to a group, even of invulnerability.

Punishing and penalizing drug use is not enough to solve the problem, nor is being too permissive. What we should do is look further ahead and seek effective approaches.

The pandemic’s impact on mental health

The pandemic has an undeniable impact on the mental health of young people. In Spain, as Celia Prat pointed out, 30% of young people consider that their mental health has deteriorated in recent years, which is a significant increase. In addition, as Patricia Puigdevall commented, last year’s data show that in Uruguay, suicidal ideation among 12- to 15-year-olds has increased by 7%, with the percentage of abandonment of usual activities due to depression ranging from 8% to 23%.

More research is needed to determine how the pandemic has affected them. However, one point highlighted by participants is that COVID has exacerbated cases that were often already present. The fact that these cases are now more visible and receive more attention can also be seen as an opportunity to listen and help these young people.

Prevention, the cornerstone of action

Participants emphasized the delay in treating mental health problems among young people. But while treatment is essential, much remains to be done in the area of prevention, including addiction prevention. As is often the case, we tend to focus on the most urgent priority (treatment) while neglecting prevention. As Xochitl Mejía points out, effective prevention doesn’t “sell” well.

What’s more, for prevention to be effective in this area, it must include interconnected and integrated community interventions at different territorial levels. As Simón Tavera pointed out, there are many public services and social programs, but they are not coordinated at the territorial level, and the links between the individual and society are non-existent. Working with young people with mental health problems requires stronger links between services and better networking, but this is a long-term commitment.

Other possible initiatives

Participants took stock of other policies or initiatives that could support work on mental health, youth and addictions, including

  • Commitment to destigmatizing mental health issues and related taboos
  • Increasing investment in prevention and treatment as the issue moves up the political agenda
  • Ensuring that support resources are accessible and affordable; removing bureaucratic barriers that alienate potential service users
  • Train professionals who work with young people, especially teachers, in early identification, gender variables, etc.
  • Empower families to deal with these issues and provide them with more resources.
  • Promote emotional, affective and sexual education.
  • Strengthen evidence and data in this field; create mental health observatories.

As can be seen, substance and non-substance addictions were addressed as causes or consequences, rather than as the central theme of the discussion. When it comes to young people with mental health and substance use problems, the priority is to work on their skills, well-being and resources, not just on the issue of substance use.

Dianova would like to thank all those who took part in the discussion and we hope that it raised as many questions and interests for everyone as it did for the participants.