Meaningful Youth Engagement: A Paradigm Shift in Perceiving Mental Health Approaches

By Nicola Chehade, Senior Specialist, Mental Health and Inclusion

Nicola Chehade speaks at the Supporting Youth Mental Health and Well-Being session at the 2024 PYD Symposium in Washington D.C.

Last month, I was asked to facilitate a session and participate in a panel discussion on mental health at the Positive Youth Development (PYD) Symposium, organized by USAID’s YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation (YP2LE) activity.  The idea for the session was born out of the pressing need for development organizations and academics working with young people to prioritize mental health and trauma-informed approaches beyond traditional clinical settings.

Young people around the world, especially those living in vulnerable situations face challenges to their well-being, such as aggression, bullying, conflict, corruption, death threats, discrimination, disease, famine, physical harm, stigma, and unemployment, on a daily basis. As implementers, we want to help them, but we face constraints that limit our ability to design programs, usually based on context, experience, funding, and time. The result tends to be programs or activities that focus on one issue or area as if the youth we work with live in a vacuum.

The session at the Symposium attempted to find a balance between incorporating mental health and well-being within program design and constraints. They focused on the exploration of various participatory and inclusive approaches to address mental health and well-being issues.

Participants and speakers explored in depth how engaging young people in decision-making processes can be instrumental in promoting mental health awareness and treatment. Additionally, they discussed the significance of employing practices that increase youth’s sense of control over their mental health.

These discussions included the importance of community-based approaches to mental health, the need for youth-led initiatives, the need for cross-sector collaboration, and the role of education and awareness in promoting mental health. Some key takeaways were as follows:

  • Prioritize Localization and Inclusion in Mental Health Efforts: Effective initiatives require the localization and inclusion of mental health efforts to cater to specific cultural, social, and regional contexts. Localization involves not only adapting evidence-based practices to fit the unique cultural, linguistic, and social nuances of the community, but also informing these practices by local norms, needs, and existing community-based approaches. Localization also focuses on contextual issues and local practices worked on at the community level. It is crucial to understand that different communities face varying challenges, stigmas, and support systems. By localizing efforts, we can ensure that interventions are highly relevant and sensitive to the needs of the population. Inclusion is also crucial in ensuring that diverse populations, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or other characteristics, have access to appropriate services. It is essential to recognize that interventions should be customized to suit each individual’s needs, and with the right approach, everyone can receive the best possible care. Moreover, localization and inclusion should focus on engaging with youth-led organizations and initiatives; creating and holding space so these organizations can participate in decision-making, inception, design, and implementation of new projects and activities; and informing policy change regarding mental health, youth engagement, and well-being.
  • Strengthen Staff Capacity on Mental Health Principles and Trauma-informed Approaches: Strengthening mental health capacity is important to improve skills and resources for interventions, especially for staff who do not have experience with mental health principles and approaches. Mainstreaming and integrating mental health principles, skills, and awareness into different sectors of development practitioners’ work and sectors is essential. Strengthening capacity at different levels of intervention is key to a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to integrating mental health into different programs. Moreover, it is important to equip the staff with the needed knowledge around trauma-informed strategies, mental health processes underlying group dynamics, individual cognitive and emotional resilience, and psycho-social dimensions.
  • Earmark Funds for Mental Health Considerations in the Scoping Process: It is imperative to allocate funds in program budgets for mental health initiatives. Mental health needs can be dynamic, and require quick responses to emerging issues. Therefore, having a financial buffer is not only prudent but crucial. It allows for flexibility in addressing unforeseen challenges or an increased demand for mental health services without compromising the overall effectiveness of the programs.
  • Incorporate Mental Health Considerations into Project Design, Planning, and Cross-Sector Planning: Incorporating mental health considerations from the outset of any project or intervention, in the initial design and planning phases, is crucial to making the most of the life of the project. This involves assessing the potential mental health impacts of policies, programs, or projects, and ensuring that preventive measures and support systems are built into the overall design. By doing so, we can ensure that we prioritize the mental well-being of individuals at all levels of the project or intervention, creating a more effective outcome. It is also important to incorporate mental health considerations and agenda items during cross-sector working groups, programs, and partnerships. Mental health integration in programming for education, economic opportunities, healthcare, human rights, conflict resolution, and other fields is an essential step in implementing a holistic and comprehensive service or program that focuses on young people in all their dimensions. Equally important is leveraging tech and digital tools to respond to accessibility issues for mental health services, as well as taking into consideration the integration of mental health evidence in the design of the digital-based approaches, in their affordances, protections, and platform features.

Though these four points are not new or innovative, they are fundamental for a paradigm shift towards programming that prioritizes mental well-being for all.  I am genuinely happy to see the growing interest in mental health and well-being, not only at the symposium but also in the international development sector as a whole. It gives me hope that we are on the right path to address the urgent need to integrate mental health support and awareness in our work with youth. If we all design our programming with these points in mind, we can create a future where mental health is integrated seamlessly into human development, ensuring a brighter, more compassionate, and resilient world for generations to come.