Why local insights are vital for funding youth mental health innovation

Written by Sahil Chopra, Portfolio Manager for the Being Initiative (hosted by Grand Challenges Canada)

In 2022, the Being initiative embarked on its first phase, aiming to delve into the complexities of youth mental health across 13 diverse countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Vietnam. Our mission was clear: to understand the underlying factors affecting the mental well-being of young people. To achieve this, we knew it was crucial to involve young individuals themselves, as they are best equipped to identify the challenges and solutions. Thus, we initiated country consultations in each of these nations, bringing together a wide array of stakeholders to spark discussions and explore avenues for enhancing youth wellbeing.

Throughout the inaugural year of Being, we collaborated closely with local universities, research institutions, and public health organisations to conduct thorough analyses and consultations. Through national-level surveys and direct engagement with young people, caregivers, government officials, civil society members, academics, practitioners, and community representatives, we gained invaluable insights into the unique needs and drivers of youth mental health in each country. Our partners played a vital role in identifying local priorities and opportunities for investment, as well as in raising awareness among key stakeholders.

Personally, I had the privilege of witnessing these consultations firsthand during visits to Egypt, India, Ghana, and Tanzania. What unfolded before my eyes was truly remarkable. Stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, particularly young people, came together to discuss youth mental health in countries where such conversations had rarely taken place before. It felt like more than just a project; it was a shared mission uniting individuals across borders. As diverse groups engaged in discussions, connections were formed, and partnerships began to emerge, signifying the start of positive changes in each country.

Here are some of the transformative stories I encountered during my travels:

  • In Tanzania, I learned about innovative startups developing tools to raise awareness about mental health among peers. However, connecting these innovations with scaling partners proved to be a challenge.
  • In India, there was a pressing call for action on suicide prevention, especially during exam result periods. Participants stressed the importance of creating a supportive environment for young individuals facing mental health challenges.
  • Egypt has made progress in improving access to mental health services, but there remains a crucial gap in addressing prevention and promotion, particularly among young people.
  • In Ghana, participants expressed excitement about the multi-stakeholder approach of the Being initiative, seeing it as a new chapter in their efforts towards mental wellbeing.

Beyond fostering collaboration, Being established robust networks comprising of experts from various fields, including mental health researchers, academics, policymakers, and representatives from the social sector. Most importantly, young people were actively engaged throughout the process, sharing their experiences and insights. Recognising the significance of their voices, we ensured that they were adequately compensated for their contributions.

The country consultations revealed common factors affecting youth mental health across the 13 countries, such as academic pressures, family dynamics, mental health literacy, stigma, exposure to violence, and cyberbullying. Additionally, issues like excessive social media use, substance abuse, and socio-economic challenges were identified as significant drivers of mental health issues among young people.

From our experience with the Being Initiative, we’ve learned that young people, especially those with lived experiences of mental health challenges, should be at the forefront of decision-making and implementation processes. Their insights are invaluable in driving locally relevant and impactful mental health innovations.

As we continue this journey, I invite the mental health community to join us in the Being Initiative. Let’s work together to create a world where everyone’s voice is heard, especially that of young people, in matters of mental health.

Stay tuned for the full results of our consultations, which will serve as the basis for our funding calls for research, innovation, and ecosystem building on April 18, 2024. Together, we can make a difference.