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Jan 11
In your mind, In your head: SA Youth’s challenges with mental wellbeing

By: Antoinette Stafford Cloete, Health Systems Trust Communications Manager and Mandisa Dlamini, Health Systems Trust Communications Intern

When Gigi D'Agostino, the world-famous DJ, remastered Ivan Gough's song, In my mind, it swept through nightclubs and beaches, igniting youth. The hypnotic refrain, "In my mind, in my head, this is where we all came from, the dreams we have, the love we share, this is what we're waiting for", spoke of a generation seeking insight and freedom from the many challenges they face.

In 2021, UNICEF South Africa released the findings of a U-Report poll in which 5 500 youth up to the age of 24 were surveyed. The results were shocking. Some 65% of youth indicated that they had some form of mental health issue, but had not sought help for it. The U-Report findings were released at the start of mental health awareness month in South Africa alongside the launch of the #OnMyMind campaign and UNICEF's global flagship report, The State of the World's Children 2021; On My Mind: promoting, protecting and caring for children's mental health.

The report detailed that over a quarter of respondents didn't think their mental health challenge was serious enough for them to seek help, 20% didn't know where to go for help and 18% were afraid of what people might think if it became known they had a mental health problem.

Why have we reached this point?

According to the UNICEF report increased poverty and a lack of hope for the future tops the reasons why youth are in despair.

 "Even before the pandemic, far too many children were living with mental health issues that were not being discussed or dealt with," said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF South Africa representative. "Today, so many children and young people have lost family members, missed out on seeing friends, had their education disrupted, and see a future with fewer opportunities to thrive," added Muhigana.

Campaigns such as #OnMyMind and various local and international partners are trying to stem the tide on increasing mental health challenges amongst our young through:

  • Technical and financial support to NGOs such as Childline who offer advice and counselling to under-age youth.
  • Supporting and empowering parents, caregivers and young people with the resources to engage in health/help-seeking behaviour in order to access good quality health and mental health services.
  • Efforts to address the stigma around mental ill-health.
  • Collaborative efforts between the public and private sector to create not only access to good psycho-social support, but also to create safe spaces for youth engagement and empowerment ultimately resulting in gainful employment and other ways in which they can thrive.

We are failing our youth

Globally, youth are struggling with depression and anxiety and thoughts of self-harm and suicide. The World Health Organization's latest research shows that teen suicide has become the fourth-leading cause of death in older adolescents (15 to 19 years) and this is endorsed by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

The data paints an alarming picture of huge numbers of young people at risk with the systems around them which are meant to support them not doing so. Families, schools, religious institutions and others must prioritise awareness-creation when it comes to reducing and eventually eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness (that people are crazy or possessed) and that it is okay to receive support to help deal with mental health challenges.

SADAG ran an online campaign throughout October to eliminate stigma surrounding Mental Health, and to encourage young people to talk about important topics related to Mental Health. SADAG's #WhatIf Campaign focused on social media; Facebook (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) and Twitter (@TheSADAG); with talking questions such as:

  • #WhatIf more people knew there was help available before it was too late?
  • #WhatIf people knew that Depression was a real medical illness that needed real treatment?
  • #WhatIf we had more serious conversations about depression with our teens?

Understanding mental health and youth

Adolescence is a critical phase for achieving human potential and a crucial period for developing social, environmental and emotional habits. Life is not predictable and many youths may undergo depressive episodes periodically when it comes to, for example, waiting for or having received matric results. The outcome may not be what they had envisioned. Some pupils will not have passed as well as they had hoped, or may have failed. Others may have to rewrite certain exams or repeat the year. The fear of not knowing what the future holds then starts to kick in as learners fear being rejected by universities. Failure to further their studies then results in mental health issues; the feeling of not seeing their worth in life leading to depression, which may lead to suicide and self-harm.

Other factors also contributing to feelings of worthlessness are bullying and social media risk.

What are the warning signs of depression in young people?

  • A persistent low mood – sadness and hopelessness that doesn't go away and where the cause is unclear
  • Sleep disturbances; insomnia or too much sleep
  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness, worthlessness, and self-blame
  • General apathy around life and appearance
  • Withdrawing socially; actively isolating from friends and family
  • General trouble thinking, substance abuse or other risky behaviours
  • Talking about self-harm, death or suicide (immediately seek professional help).

Overcoming mental health challenges

As with every disease, there are degrees of intensity and variation. One of the biggest challenges we face in South Africa when it comes to the diagnosis, treatment and related support of mental illness according to Sorsdahl, et al is the:

Failure to reach adolescents [and this] is a major service and treatment gap given this is the peak age of onset for most mental health problems. If left untreated, these problems predict adverse life trajectories. Adolescents who do not seek or access mental health services run the risk of developing more advanced psychopathology in adulthood and are at greater risk for physical health comorbidities and injury. For example, heavy alcohol use during adolescence may contribute to unsafe sex practices that increase the likelihood of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. Addressing mental health problems at an early stage may also alleviate the long-term costs to society and the public health system of untreated mental disorders.

Failing does not mean the end to a teenager's future before it has begun and there are options for learners to still reach their full potential and succeed in life:

  • Surround yourself with good people. People with strong family or social connections are generally healthier than those who lack a support network. 
  • Set realistic goals. Decide what you want to achieve academically, professionally and personally, and write down the steps you need to realise your goals. Aim high, but be realistic and don't over-schedule. Seek professional helplines and speak to counsellors to assist making the right decisions.

Where to go for help

By creating awareness and sharing information we can educate more people on how to help young people in South Africa and get them help before it is too late. SADAG runs various Helplines that offer free telephonic counselling, information and referrals for people dealing with any mental health issue including stress, seven days a week:

Suicide Helpline - 0800 567 567
24 hour Cipla Mental Health Helpline - 0800 456 789
24 hour Substance Abuse Helpline - 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393

Other helplines:

Dr Reddy's Help Helpline - 0800 21 22 23

Pharmadynamics Police &Trauma Helpline - 0800 20 50 26

Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline - 0800 70 80 90

Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students - 0800 41 42 43

ADHD Helpline - 0800 55 44 33

24hr Department of Social Development Substance Abuse helpline - 0800 12 13 14

SMS 32312

24hr Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0800 567 567

24hr Cipla Mental Health Helpline - 0800 456 789

24hr University of Cape Town Student Helpline 0800 24 25 26

24hr University of Pretoria Student Careline - 0800 747 747

University of the Western Cape after hours Student Helpline - 0800 222 333

24hr Discovery Medical Student Helpline - 0800 323 323

Tshwane University of Technology after hours Student Helpline - 0800 687 888

You can also contact:

Youthline for counselling  services and youth mentoring programmes: Free call 0800 376 633

Contact the Childline services  and speak to counsellors: +27 (0) 31 201 2059

SA Federation For Mental Health: +27 (0) 11 781 1852; +27 (0) 86 558 6909


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