World Mental Health Day and Young Key Populations

This October 10th, communities globally will be commemorating the World Mental Health Day. The PACT stands in solidarity with young people, civil society, the private sector, governments, the United Nations, across different platforms to call for increased awareness on mental health, proactive contributions for the fulfillment of the mental health needs of marginalized populations, and a strengthened commitment by key stakeholders to invest on mental health programming.  

The World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health has launched a campaign leading up to World Mental Health Day with the theme “Move for mental health: let’s invest”. The campaign aims to provide opportunities for various communities, organizations, and agencies to develop programmes that cater to the wellbeing and mental health needs of their constituents. 

For young people, the relevant key messages of this campaign include:

  1. Depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents and adults.  
  2. 1 in 5 children and adolescents has a mental disorder.
  3. Suicide is claiming the lives of close to 800 000 people every year  ̶  1 person every 40 seconds  ̶- and is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29 years.

However, in terms of investment by states who are committed to the physical and mental health needs of their citizens:

  • On average, countries spend less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health.
  • Despite an increase of development assistance for mental health in recent years, it has never exceeded 1% of development assistance for health.

Therefore with some of these statistics in mind that were shared by the World Health Organization, it is important for young people to also hold those in power accountable when their wellbeing and mental health needs are not met. Mental Health is a human right after all! 

As a consortium of organizations working with young key populations and advocacies for sexual and reproductive health and rights, the PACT is also committed to ensure that mental health is seen as an integral part of our work and advocacy. 

The link between HIV and Mental Health is apparent. Data has shown that people living with HIV have a higher risk of mental health conditions. People living with HIV should also take care of both their physical and mental health. People living with HIV face intersectional stigma and discrimination as they are often also discriminated for their age, sexuality, gender, race, social class, among other things. This exclusion from society results in feelings of anxiety and stress that may affect the lives of young key populations. 

One group that often faces these discriminatory acts are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) individuals. These discriminatory acts lead to negative experiences that hamper or prevent their access to peer support groups, mental health professions, and sexual health services. Oftentimes, some spaces are not accommodating or affirming of LGBTQI experiences and increase feelings of anxiety and stress for these groups. These can further lead to utter neglect of nutrition and physical fitness, dropping out of education or unsatisfactory academic performance, and affecting their social relationships with peers. 

LGBTQI youth, Mental Health, and COVID-19

In June 2020, Youth Voices Count, a regional network for young LGBTQI persons in Asia-Pacific, launched the “#CopingWithCOVID: The Well-Being of LGBTIQ Adolescents and Youth during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Asia and the Pacific”. This report hopes to spotlight the issues and challenges faced by LGBTQI adolescents and youth in Asia-Pacific which were exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The study utilized a framework wherein the individual well being of LGBTQI was viewed under four interrelated dimensions. The four areas of well-being covered in the report are (a) mental health, (b) sexual health, (c) civil and political life, and (d) social and economic status.

Zooming in on the mental health dimension the following were the key points:

  1. Coupled with the feeling of isolation and disconnection from social peers due to the stay-at-home orders, many LGBTIQ youth are concerned about their or their family’s physical health and psychological well-being.
  2. The other striking situation that adds to the level of distress that LGBTIQ youth experience is the anxiety brought about by being forced to live back to their families who do not accept them. 
  3. Fear of stigma and discrimination also delay LGBTIQ access to delay mental health services, exacerbating the health issues that they face. LGBTIQ-friendly or affirming mental healthcare was already sparse before the pandemic, and most relied on psychosocial support from friends and community resources, which they are now cut off from.

In the survey conducted prior to the study, more than 70% of the respondents experience higher vulnerability towards family members, such as concerns about being disclosed to other members of household, stigma and discrimination, and hostility or disagreement with family due to sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Additionally, the various levels of state-sanctioned quarantine measures and community lockdowns has limited the mobility of LGBTIQ clients to access mental health services, medication, and other forms of counseling, guidance, and support. Lastly, many young people have relied on social media for information on both COVID-19 and mental health. 

This is equally important in the conversation of sexual health and HIV/AIDS as COVID-19 also affected the access to sexual health services, including access to ARV and other medication, counseling and testing, and other services. Coupled with the stigma and discrimination faced by young key populations, like men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender persons, sex workers, and people who use drugs, the inaccessbility to services could be detrimental to the wellbeing of these populations.

This World Mental Health Day, we should therefore acknowledge that various key population communities have unique mental health needs. It is also the role of civil society to provide sensitized and supportive mental health care and support for key populations. Additional effort should also be dedicated to understanding the issues and challenges faced by communities on their wellbeing and mental health that could prevent or slow down our global HIV targets from being met. 

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