International Youth Day

Message of UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to mark International Youth Day

Date: Monday, August 11, 2014

The health of our young people – both mind and body – is a critical asset. Today, on International Youth Day, we join the UN Campaign #mentalhealthmatters to reinforce the message that “mental health matters”. We have to break through the difficulties and prejudice that still surround mental ill health, at the same time tackling the principal causes where we can.

We know that psychological well-being is central to the ability to enjoy life, to deal robustly with challenges, to grow to become intellectually and emotionally fulfilled, and to be able to work and to contribute to society and the economy. For young people and particularly for young women today, that ideal is ruptured on many levels, with their own families, communities, societies and economies contributing challenges to mental equilibrium, denying the existence of difficulty, and in too many places, failing to provide sufficient and appropriate support, care and treatment. To suffer mental illness is already to carry a terrible burden. To be stigmatized can be disastrous, resulting in social and economic exclusion, and a downwards spiral.

The sheer scale of mental ill health globally must make us question why as a global community we have not acted sooner and fuel the urgency to act now. As the World Health Organization’s 2014 report Health for the World’s Adolescents shows, globally, among adolescents, depression is the number one cause of illness and disability, and suicide is the number three cause of death. All over the world, young lives are being damaged as a result of mental illnesses and the complex mental health effects of extreme stressors, such as war or disasters. We know the vulnerabilities of young women as refugees and internally displaced persons. For example, a recent UN Women study into gender-based violence amongst Syrian refugees reported women’s feelings of a lack of a future, hopelessness, anxiety for their children and perception of being trapped.

UN Women is working to tackle the root causes of many of these stressors and to build opportunities for women to participate as equal partners in development and humanitarian responses within the framework of addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment. Our focus on ending violence against women and girls includes domestic/intimate partner violence, sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence, female genital mutilation, and early, forced and child marriages.

We know that gender inequality, discrimination, imbalances of power, and social and cultural norms all contribute to making women and girls more vulnerable to mental health conditions and less able to access services to meet their needs. Stigmatization of mental ill health creates a further barrier to access to services. Women are having to cope with the initial hardship of the illness, or the violent acts such as rape that have caused it, their own responses to the situation, including fear, self-blame and depression, and then face a further barrier to seeking or receiving treatment.

Once women are in a position to be able to lift their voices, they are powerful advocates against stigma and discrimination, and for the rights of those affected with mental health conditions. They are essential partners in the design of prevention campaigns and treatment services. Young women must be integrally involved in prevention services and awareness campaigns so that services respond to the specific needs of young people, and in particular to the needs of young women, and cumulatively benefit society as a whole.