Written by By Anne Flath, CNN
Popping the question: There are an estimated 130 million people of working age who don’t have secure jobs, according to the World Bank. That’s about 13% of the global workforce. But instead of acknowledging this and focusing their attention on youth unemployment, national governments seem to have become fixated on young people’s mental health.
Why is it that countries that struggle with youth unemployment have refused to address mental health inequality, despite it being a driving factor of joblessness? Why is it that significant efforts are made to tackle inequalities in poverty and women’s rights — and yet, those inequalities within the mind have gone largely unaddressed?
The impact of mental health poverty can be devastating. According to a report in The Lancet, mental health poverty is responsible for 46% of total disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), a term coined by the World Health Organization that compares healthy years lived with years of disability.
Chaos and panic
Employment and health make for a perfect combination, according to Tracie Heerema, the international CEO of ChoiceHealth, an international, not-for-profit medical and behavioral health company. “It’s common sense for our generation of employers to understand that by having mentally healthy and productive employees they are better equipped to provide other services to their people — like our own company, which is 100% employee-owned,” he said.
But for some, mental health is seen as a sign of weakness. “It’s still seen as a sign of weakness,” said one young worker, who did not want to be named. “Companies don’t have a great track record of recognising mental health as anything other than a weakness.”
When the youth unemployment crisis spread across Europe, countries lagged behind. But a 2015 study by Oxford University linked increased youth employment with lower rates of mental health and suicide in adulthood. A systematic review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2015 linked youth unemployment with higher rates of depression and anxiety, both among men and women.
What’s more, the two seem to be linked: For every million more unemployed workers, mental health increases by 1.2%.
When looking at mental health, poverty and unemployment is more than a coincidence. They are intertwined by a chain of unequal power and influence. And when poor mental health is concentrated among youth, who are also disproportionally likely to be unemployed and poor, it’s no surprise that those who are already the most disadvantaged are more likely to be affected. And when the environment that youth are in is also one that leaves them vulnerable to serious mental illness, it’s not a coincidence at all.
Removing this economic injustice is an ambitious political challenge. It involves overturning the traditional social hierarchy in which mental health is seen as weakness, risk and a mental defect. Instead, we should be championing mental health as a strength and a strength as something to work hard to understand and tackle.
Older generations may have had mental health problems, but these weren’t stigmatized as such. In youth culture, everything from violence, materialism and entitlement are championed. “People are taught from a young age that work and success and wealth and value — that’s all good stuff,” said Jordan Tressler, a youth activist who co-founded the youth-focused mental health advocacy group, Project iCount.
That’s changing, however. “The youth voice is incredibly loud and powerful,” Tressler added. “The ability to communicate and get connected and engage and organize and fight back really is robust now.”
A new consciousness
Youth organization, the Inspiration Project, is using Twitter to bring this new awareness to the world. Project iCount, the group behind the ranking, brought the two World Mental Health Day campaigns together through the crowdsourcing tool, using social media to connect global conversations on mental health.
Now, you can join the conversation by tweeting #KindnessSuicide along with your completed questionnaire to find out how your governments’ policies might be affecting mental health.
Young people aren’t just sharing what they’ve heard, they’re also becoming more active in politics. Fearless citizen journalists like Ryan Sparrow are changing the way we view reports about young people’s lives. As President Donald Trump said of children in his State of the Union address, “No group of Americans is more hopeful, more creative, more tenacious than our young people.”