International study fills data gap on adolescent mental health

May 10, 2024


Michelle Mbuthia

Communications Officer

Yohannes Wado

Research Scientist


NAIROBI, May 10, 2024– Surveys involving thousands of adolescents and their primary caregiver have shown the prevalence of mental disorders within the age group is very different across Kenya, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Associate Professor Holly Erskine, from The University of Queensland’s School of Public Health and the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, said the findings demonstrated the importance of collecting data for individual countries, rather than assuming all low- and middle-income countries are similar.

“There is a critical deficit in data on adolescent mental health in many low and middle-income countries, such as Kenya. This greatly hampers informed mental health policymaking and planning,” said Dr. Yohannes Wado, a Research Scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center and the leader of the study in Kenya. “The National Adolescent Mental Health Survey (NAMHS) provided the first nationally representative prevalence estimates of mental disorders among adolescents,” he said.

The National Adolescent Mental Health Surveys (NAMHS) led by UQ found nearly one in eight adolescents in Kenya had a mental disorder in the 12 months prior to the survey, while in Indonesia it was one in 18 and in Vietnam one in 30.

“NAMHS found the prevalence of mental disorders in 10- to 17-year-olds in Kenya to be more consistent with similar studies undertaken in other countries, including Australia, although Indonesia and Vietnam were much lower,” Dr Erskine said.

“These findings warrant further research to determine whether cultural and societal factors like family and community cohesion, and more authoritative parenting styles may be behind the results.

“Fortunately, NAMHS also collected comprehensive data on risk and protective factors for adolescent mental disorders, so we are able to investigate further to better understand our prevalence findings.”

The survey results showed adolescents across the 3 countries were more likely to experience suicidal behaviours and self-harm in the 12 months prior to the survey if they had a mental disorder, compared to adolescents without a mental disorder.

“This important finding suggests that targeted strategies are needed to prevent suicide and self-harm in those with existing mental disorders,” Dr Erskine said.

Professor James Scott, from UQ’s Child Health Research Centre, said NAMHS was a landmark and innovative study which developed methods for conducting high-quality nationally representative surveys across different countries and cultures.

“Teams from five countries worked collaboratively to develop and adapt the questionnaires used in the study and to establish a methodology suitable for all three countries and for future surveys in other countries.

“The involvement of organizations within Kenya, Indonesia, and Vietnam was vital, given their knowledge and understanding of their country’s unique cultural and geographic factors, and ability to administer NAMHS in their context,” Professor Scott said.

“We believe the evidence from the NAMHS will be used by policymakers to prioritize adolescent mental health in their mental health policies and programs,” said Dr. Wado.

NAMHS was funded by The University of Queensland in America (TUQIA), through support from Pivotal Ventures, a Melinda French Gates company.

The research is published in The Lancet.