World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. Adolescent mental health in the European Region. 2018.
Childhood and adolescence are critically important stages of life for the mental health and well-being of individuals, not just because this is when young people develop autonomy, self-control, social interaction and learning, but also because the capabilities formed in this period directly influence their mental health for the rest of their lives. Negative experiences – such as family conflict at home or bullying at school – can have enduring damaging effects on the development of core cognitive and emotional skills.
The socioeconomic conditions in which young people grow up can also importantly affect choices and opportunities in adolescence and adulthood. Deprived living conditions or neighbourhoods, for example, may be seen by young people as shameful or degrading, may reduce their opportunities for productive learning and social interaction or may increase their exposure to substance abuse, disease and injury.
Exposure to adverse experiences and situations in childhood and adolescence can significantly affect mental well-being many years into the future. For example, insecure attachment in infancy or family violence in childhood are important predictors of subsequent problems such as substance use or criminal behaviour in adolescence, which in turn increase the likelihood of exposure to other established risk factors in adulthood, such as unemployment, debt and social exclusion.
The mental health and well-being of children and adolescents should therefore be promoted and protected. Children and adolescents need safe, secure, inclusive homes, schools and social environments in which to develop and thrive. These can be promoted by living within loving, supportive families, having a network of friends, engaging in social activities and participating in a positive school environment.
For a substantial number of children and adolescents, however, these key elements of a safe, supportive environment are unfulfilled or missing. This, and each individual’s unique biological make-up, can contribute to the onset of behavioural and mental health problems.Early identification of such problems – and, when necessary, early intervention or timely management – is critically important. Too often, however, the signs and symptoms are missed by health, social and educational services. In the absence of appropriate support and intervention, such problems may continue, worsen or lead to mental illness.