As the COVID-19 pandemic upends the lives of young people around the world, a long-simmering mental health crisis threatens to boil over. Demand for mental health care is skyrocketing, and yet support services have been significantly curtailed. We can make sure young people everywhere can access the mental health care they need when we #UniteforHealth.

Before COVID-19, roughly 1 in 5 adolescents worldwide was already living with mental health conditions and suicide was the third leading cause of death for teens between the ages of 15 and 19.

COVID-19 has only compounded the problem. It’s not hard to understand why. Millions of young people can’t access school. Jobs are hard to come by, and financial security is harder still. Social and community bonds are wildly disrupted. Alcohol and drug use are up, along with anxiety and depression.

Young women in particular bear a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s social and economic consequences. Girls and women are taking on a majority of unpaid care work. Child marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and female genital mutilation are all expected to rise. And in what has been called a shadow pandemic, gender-based violence has skyrocketed. Six months of lockdown measures are thought to have led to an additional 31 million cases of violence against girls and women.

More than 40% of people between the ages of 13 and 25 in the UK reported that their mental health was “much worse” due to the pandemic. And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 young Americans considered suicide this summer — significantly higher than the one in 10 adults. And for those living in low- and middle-income countries marred by conflict — where 1 in 5 people were affected by a mental health condition before the added stress of COVID-19 — the situation is especially concerning.

COVID is fueling mental health crisis for the world's youth

But despite rising demand, mental health care is increasingly out of reach for those in need. A new survey from the World Health Organization found that 72% of mental health services for children and adolescents have been disrupted due to COVID-19.

With about half of all mental health conditions appearing by the age of 14, childhood and adolescence are critical periods for mental health care and intervention. Forgoing care during these stages can have serious, long-lasting implications for a young person’s emotional development. If we wait until the pandemic is behind us to address this burgeoning mental health crisis, it will be too late.

Mental health must be integrated into national COVID-19 response and recovery plans, and countries need to back up mental health commitments with funding. Because while nearly 90% of countries have incorporated mental health services into national response plans, just a fraction have allocated the funding needed to cover those services.

Even prior to the pandemic, mental health was woefully underfunded. On average, at the national level, countries dedicate just 2% of their health budgets to mental health. That’s simply not enough. In addition to the moral imperative, there’s an economic case for mental health investment. Anxiety and depression alone cost the global economy U.S. $1 trillion every year, but every dollar invested generates five in return.

Scaling up mental health services to meet current needs will take a combination of political will and increased investment at both the global and national levels. But to implement long-lasting systemic change, the provision of mental health services needs to be fundamentally re-evaluated.

Too often we see health systems as something that repairs broken bones or treats infectious diseases — not something that promotes the health and well-being of the whole person. Mental health care is fundamental to both physical health and well-being and as such, must be considered a core component of essential health services and primary health care. It’s really quite simple: There is no health without mental health.

Mental health care is a right, not a privilege quoteAll adolescents, no matter their families’ financial means or where they happen to live in the world, deserve access to mental health services. Mental health care is a right, not a privilege. If the pandemic crowds out these services, we are sowing the seeds of irrevocable emotional harm for younger generations.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals outline an ambitious plan to achieve universal health coverage (UHC) by 2030 and “promote mental health and wellbeing.” And UN Secretary-General António Guterres just affirmed the indispensability of mental health to UHC and renewed the call for countries to invest in UHC as a fundamental pillar of COVID-19 recovery plans.

This pandemic has already cost us too much. It has made painfully clear just how vital it is to our collective health that everyone can access comprehensive, quality health care. We owe it to the next generation to ensure health systems care for the whole person, so that young people everywhere can access the support they need — both physically and mentally.

We are all safer and stronger when we #UniteforHealth.