Under increasing conflict and climate crises, young people’s mental health bears a heavy burden

Malina, 12, from Odesa in Ukraine, reads a story to her new friends at a UNFPA-supported youth safe space at a refugee accommodation centre in Chișinău, the capital of the Republic of Moldova. The safe space is one of 20 across the country, which offer counselling and psychosocial services as well as educational support for young refugees and host populations. © UNFPA Moldova
  • 10 October 2022

UNITED NATIONS, New York – “I remember walking in the cold for a very long time, scared of the explosions and tanks passing near our house,” said 12-year-old Malina, who was forced to flee her hometown of Odesa in Ukraine as the war closed in.

As the shelling got closer, she travelled with her mother, siblings and cousin to the Republic of Moldova, taking shelter in a refugee centre in the capital Chișinău. Some months later, hers is now a familiar face at a UNFPA-led safe space that was set up to give young refugees – particularly Roma like Malina as well as other minority groups – the chance to talk, play and escape their shared trauma of violence and upheaval. 

One of 20 safe spaces supported by UNFPA across the Republic of Moldova, the centre offers teenagers somewhere they can focus on educational and recreational activities, a welcome reprieve from being haunted by the horrors of war. Humanitarian crises can carve deep scars into young minds, all the more so for those who are already marginalized and at higher risk of violence, human trafficking and discrimination.

The Executive Director speaks with refugees.
In March, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem visited Ukrainian refugees who had recently fled the war and sought refuge at the Manej stadium in Chișinău, in the Republic of Moldova. © UNFPA/Siegfried Modola

UNFPA’s coordinator at the safe space in Chișinău, Shahin Rădiță, explained how essential it is to ensure young people have access to psychosocial support and counselling to deal with the trauma of conflict. Many young Roma refugees at the centre have had to leave fathers and brothers behind, and some are now living with a family member suffering from depression themselves. 

Young people with mental health conditions are all too often subjected to stigma, discrimination, and further exclusion. At the Chișinău safe space, Mr. Rădiță encourages them to speak with him or the safe space psychologist. 

“Sometimes just getting them out of the room – which is occupied by several relatives – and finding a place in our safe space is already a healing experience,” he added. “All they need is support and encouragement.” 

A lifetime of repercussions

Globally, 100 million people are currently displaced by persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations – a grim landmark and the highest number since World War II. On World Mental Health Day, WHO estimates that one in five people affected by conflict need some form of psychological support, and a harrowing one-third of Ukrainian refugees are expected to develop depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder – conditions that risk robbing them of their future stability, potential and happiness. 

As the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA assists people at some of their most vulnerable moments – as they seek essential care, or in the aftermath of gender-based violence, for instance –  to provide critical support or refer survivors for the help they need.

In countries prone to climate disasters and with high populations of young people, UNFPA has launched programmes to rapidly increase access to psychosocial information, counselling, shelters and safe spaces.

For example in Pakistan, which is currently reeling from one of the worst flooding disasters in its history, a confidential helpline staffed by psychologists is being rolled out across universities so young people can discuss reproductive and mental health problems and be referred to specialized services where needed. UNFPA is also supporting a network of health facilities through trained psychologists offering counselling and referrals for both host communities and a growing Afghan refugee population.

And in Nepal, where landslides and flash floods affect over 80 per cent of the population in one form or another, UNFPA is working on a series of psychosocial first aid training programmes aimed at women leaders in flood-affected areas. 

A young girl.
Manisha, 24, was trained as a community social worker by UNFPA to ensure communities in her region are better equipped in disaster preparedness and flood response. From the Bagmati Province of Nepal, she  described losing her home and all her belongings to the last floods: “When our houses and land were swept away by the floods it was emotionally distressing. We lost everything.” © UNFPA Nepal 

Manisha, 24, is a psychosocial worker trained by UNFPA and dedicated to ensuring communities are better prepared for future climate crises. “When our houses and land were swept away by the flood, it was emotionally distressing. We lost everything. I am glad to have been part of the training so I can serve others. I’m also feeling much more mentally strong and healthy and able to earn more in my new role, so I can better support my family,” she said. 

Mental health for all is a global priority 

The support Malina received is helping her cope with the upheaval she has faced.“Every day I learn something new here. We were terrified, but now when I tell my story I am not so frightened, because I feel safe and have started a new life here.” 

UNFPA is expanding its mental health programmes to better integrate rights-based, community-led and culturally sensitive psychosocial support into its response. 

Speaking of the power and force of young people despite the turmoil so many are grappling with, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said, “It will take every generation working in solidarity to address the daunting challenges our planet faces – from climate change to conflict, from hunger to health. Let us build a world where people of every age have rights, choices and opportunities to fulfil their potential and promise.”

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