Supporting Mental Health of Youth Through Non-Formal Education

Being human goes beyond physical and biological aspects. Mental health is gaining more relevance over time and requires adequate awareness and care. An interesting way to care for it is through non-formal education. How are non-formal educators supporting the mental health of youth? This article explores some examples and advice.

Thinking of health usually leads us to think of a physician as a doctor. But what about mental health? Are we taking it seriously as an integral part of our welfare and integral health? Mental health is a core element of well-being and is an important concern for youth. Non-formal education for youth can be useful to increase mental health awareness and care among youth, caretakers, educators, and society in general.


Mental Health in Youth

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined mental health as “the foundation for the well-being and effective functioning of individuals. It is more than the absence of a mental disorder; it is the ability to think, learn, and understand one’s emotions and the reactions of others.” This definition reinforces a link between mental health, mind, and body, as well as the environment. 

Mental health is equally important as physical health. According to the WHO, it is estimated that one out of every seven young people between 10-19 years old worldwide experience mental health conditions. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, given their physical, emotional, and social changes. Emotional disorders in youth can include depression and anxiety. It is estimated that 1.1 percent of adolescents between 10-14 years old and 2.8 percent of 15-19 years old are suffering from certain types of depression. 

These disorders can severely affect the life quality of youth, and of course, their overall health. With similar symptoms not often identified even by the patients, depression, and anxiety can affect school attendance and the learning process, as well as reinforce negative behaviors in youth, such as isolation and loneliness, and in the worst cases, it may result in suicide if not treated properly. Young people with mental health problems are mostly exposed to social exclusion, learning difficulties, risk-taking conduct, and rights violations among others.


Mental Health and Non-Formal Education

Care and awareness of mental health in youth is an issue of significant relevance for society and must be reinforced at all levels. In some parts of society, visiting a psychologist is still a stigma or a minimized practice. Although the role of a psychologist in mental healthcare has evolved over time and eventually gained more acceptance, the concept of mental counseling is still linked to mental diseases and ‘craziness’. This sometimes causes people to avoid considering mental health as a priority for overall wellness. Therefore, strengthening its awareness of what mental health is, why it matters, and how to take care of it is important to ensure that people take care of their own health, but also to detect some ‘red flags’ in other people they interact with.

In the learning process, fostering this awareness between children and youth, their parents, and their teachers is necessary to identify actions to be taken if any alert or symptom is detected. Especially at school, teachers’ roles allow them to have a perspective very useful to detect symptoms of possible mental health problems. So even though teachers are not allowed to treat patients with psychotherapy, they can support students by talking to them or to their parents with empathy and genuine interest. 

But mental health is not merely a classroom issue, and non-formal education can also play a key role in its care and awareness raising. The European Commission has been sponsoring different projects across the continent, in order to raise awareness of youth and mental health, as well as to develop different toolkits, guides, and resources to support non-formal trainers and youth workers and help them gain knowledge on such topics. Given the nature of non-formal learning, its balance between spontaneity, structure, and outdoor practice allows flexibility to use different resources that promote the mental health of youth in different ways: from ludic games to individual or group reflections, and also team building tasks.


Resources Related to Non-Formal Education and Mental Health of Youth

There are plenty of materials about non-formal education and youth’s mental health. Some studies about the practices of European countries have been published in different policy briefs, reports, and toolkits. For example, the European Commission’s Youth work and non-formal learning in Europe’s education landscape compile policies, findings, and recommendations on how to link non-formal education and youth’s mental health. Scientific papers are also publishing findings regarding how non-formal education can support the mental health of youth, such as this study in Albania.

An example of practical activities for the mental health of youth was developed by International Young Naturefriends (IYNF), an international NGO based in the Czech Republic, which dedicated its entire training cycle in 2022 to the creation of a first-aid toolkit of outdoor education activities for youth workers and trainers. The toolkit (available here) aims to provide short practices of different types and support mental health in quick and engaging activities.

To conclude, raising mental health care and awareness is a priority to ensure that every person, and especially every youth, lives an integral healthy life. This care and awareness is not an exclusive task for psychologists. Rather, every person must take care of their health and pursue actions to keep it well or seek support if it is really needed. As mental health problems can be hard to detect formally, it is important to pay attention to potential ‘red flags’ and ask for help in case they are observed. Non-formal education can support facilitators and trainers, be more flexible with the resources and activities performed, and allow participants to work on this awareness and care for mental health in a more mindful way.



Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock


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