Children in the world's wealthiest countries are hurting, and figuring out how to help them is a daunting challenge to the countries and communities that serve them and their families. That's the conclusion drawn by “Worlds of Influence: Understanding What Shapes Child Well-Being in Rich Countries,” a report from the UNICEF Office of Research, the United Nations agency that works to improve the lives of the world's children.
The report looked at the well-being of children in 38 wealthy countries around the world in three major areas of their lives: mental health and life satisfaction, physical health, and basic academic skills. Children in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Finland reported the highest levels of well-being of all children ages 5 to 19 who were surveyed.
In most countries, fewer than 80% of children report being satisfied with their lives. Turkey has the lowest rate of life satisfaction at 53%, followed by Japan and the United Kingdom. Lithuania has the highest rate of adolescent suicide – a leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds in rich countries – followed by New Zealand and Estonia. Physically, one in three children across all wealthy countries are either obese or overweight. On average, 40% of children across wealthier countries do not have basic reading and mathematics skills by age 15.
Perhaps surprisingly, American children were found to be especially vulnerable to these challenges. The U.S. ranks 32nd of 38 wealthy countries in mental well-being, 38th in physical health, and 32nd in practical academic skills. Researchers identified lack of family support and bullying by peers as the greatest risk factors to children's mental health.
As the world goes, so goes northeast Indiana. Shirley Ryan deals with hurting, vulnerable children every day in her role as clinical director of Crossroad Child and Family Services in Fort Wayne, which provides residential and outpatient services for troubled children.
“We see a lot of anxiety with younger children,” she said. “They feel under so much pressure to succeed, to look and behave a certain way. The media alters their perception of their own lives.
“It makes sense that youth who have less supportive families and are bullied would experience poorer mental health outcomes,” she said. “Having a good foundation of supportive relationships in their personal lives is an important contributor to their ability to be resilient in obstacles and life stressors.”
Given that the report was compiled before the pandemic took hold last winter, Ryan said, children everywhere will grapple with even more adversity as the world reckons with the aftermath of COVID-19.
“The gains many countries felt, specifically in education, are definitely at high risk for falling back,” she said. “There is great concern everywhere about how COVID will impact youth development and mental health, as precautions are extended for longer periods of time, and services are hard to initiate through online means for many families.”
Individuals and agencies that serve northeast Indiana's most vulnerable children would be wise to heed UNICEF's cautionary tale to reimagine how they use resources and do whatever is in their power to help kids find their way, emerging into healthy adulthood.