Denying mental health care to children is a violation of their human rights

Dec. 10, 2020

Meisje uit Sri Lanka kijkt camera in - War Child programma in Sri Lanka
The COVID-19 crisis is providing a stark reminder of the inextricable link between our physical and mental health. Both are fundamental human rights protected by international treaties – yet mental health is by far the more underfunded and violated right.

Spending on mental health worldwide stands at around 2% of total government health spending - and mental health care is heavily understaffed – with less than one trained professional per 100,000 people in many lower income countries. This has real and devastating consequences for the 160 million children living in high-intensity conflict zones who face urgent and acute mental health needs – and presents nothing less than a violation of their human rights.

Mental health as a human right

This week, 72 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the UN continues to reaffirm mental health as a fundamental human right protected by international treaties on par with physical health [Article 25, UDHR]. Anyone with a mental health complaint has the same right to care as someone with a physical problem. [Article 12(2)(d), ICESCR]. All nations – bar notable exceptions - have adopted and ratified these rights – and defined health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

But reality tells a very different story. Mental health continues to be plagued by stigma and discrimination and is consistently deprioritised in national health budgets and emergency responses. Low income countries, for instance, average 0.9 mental health workers per 100,000 people, compared to 52.3 in high income countries.

This is also evident in recent national COVID-19 response plans; 89% of countries have included mental health services into their plans, but only 17% have ensured full additional funding for it.

Facing mental health issues

For the 160 million children living in high intensity conflict zones worldwide, the implications for their mental health are staggering. In the current context, one in eleven will eventually have a moderate or severe mental disorder. One in five people in their communities is facing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia. And one in four will need some psychological support in their lifetime.

“There is no time to waste,” says Dr Unni Krishnan, War Child’s Humanitarian Director. "No child should have to carry the psychological scars of war.’’

"Emotional care and mental health services should be critical components in humanitarian responses. Equally important is incorporating mental health and globally accepted standards on psychosocial care and support in emergency settings and policy formulation to make this happen."

“These are essential to protect the rights and dignity of people in humanitarian crises."
Unni Krishnan - Humanitarian Director

Achieving this will require far higher levels of political commitment, additional resources, functioning institutions, community support services, trained personnel and improved mental health standards than we have provided so far.

Increasing demand for mental health

As we slide into 2021, we are already seeing global health services and budgets visibly buckling under the strain due to the COVID-19 crisis. Critical mental health services have been disrupted or halted in 93% of countries worldwide and the demand for mental health has been increasing. The consequences of this are likely to be severe.

The UN warns that ‘although the COVID-19 crisis is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well, if action is not taken.”

War Child is calling on everyone - from governments, inter-governmental agencies, donors, foundations, INGOs, businesses and individuals - to give mental health a central place, to safeguard the most vulnerable and expand mental health support in COVID-19 recovery initiatives.