By Guest Writer Emma McDonnell
Playgrounds, sleepovers, and playdates; for a child, a carefree childhood is fundamental to a well-lived life. These innocent and relaxed days stand in stark contrast to the work and stress-filled days that often typify adulthood. The reality, however, is that the children of today face increased levels of stress and anxiety, sentiments which have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, war, natural disasters, and famine, among other conflicts and issues. Children who live in conflict-torn areas are unable to live, grow, and develop in normality. They cannot play as normal children would do. They may be unable to attend school as normal children would do. In these formative years, children have little to no control over their lives and as such are incredibly vulnerable.
When the images and stories of children being imprisoned in cages and separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border first surfaced, many were horrified and shocked that these measures were being taken, but this discussion quickly evolved into a political debate concerning migration as a whole. What many failed to consider was how these children’s experiences would play out in the long-term. Many neglected to recognize how this would impact these children’s mental health and overall well-being, given these traumatic experiences. Stories like this are not isolated or limited—rather, they can be seen throughout the globe. What remains consistent throughout these issues, however, is the trend of children falling victim to circumstances that are out of their control.
Long-term international aid efforts are often associated with infrastructure, medical aid, and basic development. When international aid and response is mobilized after or during a conflict or crisis, many organizations look to provide healthcare and stabilizing support. However, such conclusions can lead to overgeneralizations, failing to accurately represent the need for comprehensive aid and leaving massive gaps. Such assumptions greatly overlook mental health and psychosocial support, as international funding for mental health has never exceeded 1%. The mental health crisis is a crisis that is increasingly discussed and treated in affluent countries. But this same level of discussion and support should be provided to the 452 million of the world’s children who currently live in areas affected by conflict; children who are the next generation and will shape the future of the world.
Introduced by U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and U.S. Representatives Susan Wild (D-PA-7) and Joe Wilson (R-SC-2), the Mental Health in International Development and Humanitarian Settings (MINDS) Act is the first-ever bipartisan bill which seeks to improve global mental health. The Act incorporates mental health services into U.S. foreign assistance programming, with a specific prioritization of high-risk individuals and children. The Act is endorsed by a number of organizations and institutions, including Save the Children, Columbia University’s Global Mental Health Lab, International Rescue Committee, and UNICEF USA, among others.
Two-thirds of children live in states impacted by conflict, increasing the likelihood that these children will suffer both physically and mentally. The domino effect that mental health has, should not be dismissed or undermined as healthy mental health leads to success in children’s education and onwards in adult lives. For instance, positive school experiences lead to an increase in social capital, which in turn impacts the economic affluence of local communities, states, and nations. Investing early on in the support and development of the next generation is not just the responsibility of international organizations, but also countries’ as then nations and the international community are able to maximize the full potential of all individuals. Such legislation would spearhead a common approach to protecting and assisting vulnerable populations.
Childhood and adolescence are formative years for emotional and psychological development. Ensuring that children’s mental health is protected is just as vital as ensuring their physical well-being. While externally children may not exhibit scars, internally the scars are manifested in trauma, depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses. Furthermore, centralizing mental health and advocating for access at a primary level ensures the necessary support early on. Providing systematic, policy structures to account for the health and well-being of others will create legitimacy and enable effective and expansive support.
Mental health is and should be a global priority. Failure to mobilize necessary funding and support will significantly impact future development and growth. The MINDS Act is critical to these efforts and should be passed by Congress.