SA youth facing mental health battle

Published Nov 5, 2023


The majority of South Africa’s youth are facing a battle with mental health issues.

This is according to a recent explosive report by UNICEF, which has indicated that South African youth are facing an uphill battle with mental health issues.

Last week, UNICEF’s South Africa U-Report 2023 poll was released, and the report showed that as many as 60% of children and youth in South Africa felt they needed mental health support over the past year.

Of those, however, only 63% of the respondents who needed support actively sought it – mainly because they just didn’t know where to go.

The report, however, comes as no surprise to Dr Alex Plowright, Community Health and Wellbeing Lead at Anglo American, who says that South Africa’s youth have been battling with mental health issues for several years now.

“Since Covid, young people have experienced shocks and fluctuations in stability, which will inevitably have an impact on their mental health outcomes,” said Plowright.

“Mental health issues, that perhaps were in place prior, were exacerbated during this time and stay unresolved owing to an absence of support.”

She said a huge lack of support for youth in SA has exacerbated mental health issues.

“The current state of mental health need (60% as per the report) is indicative of the latent landscape of poor mental health, the exacerbation during Covid and a clear lack of appropriate embedded and integrated support for young people’s mental health in the country.

“When it comes to South Africa’s young people, their mental health is on a bit of a precipice,” says Plowright.

“And the result is that many of them end up engaging in risky behaviours. We see this in many of our host communities – risky behaviour around alcohol and drugs, transactional sex between young women and older men, and a high incidence of teenage pregnancies.”

She adds that while the youth might have high ambitions, there’s currently a lack of opportunities for them, and no clear pathway ahead as they contemplate adulthood. And so feelings of hopelessness – especially for those approaching matric finals – tend to grow and proliferate.

“The trouble is that the usual self-care and coping mechanisms suggested aren’t always available in a low-income context.

“And so their risk is exacerbated; it’s more pronounced. Many of them are struggling just to have their basic needs met – food, clothing, shelter – so they don’t have the bandwidth to sort out their mental health as well, and many don’t know who to ask for help.”

Plowright says there are also plenty of social pressures facing South Africa’s youth today, which impacts mental health.

“Aside from the experience of poverty, which is an inevitable stressor for many, exacerbated by Covid and the subsequent economic downturn, social media use can be challenging for young people, as can peer pressure to conform to societal norms.

“A young woman once said to me that the intersection of poverty and capitalism in South Africa is the root cause of the stress experienced by young people in the country. Additionally, the pressure associated with a gap in opportunity for young people in the country coupled with the desire to achieve and do well is difficult for everyone.”

The report also indicated that many youth failed to seek help with their mental health issues.

Plowright said this could come down to several factors.

“I think this is about a lack of service availability, lack of knowledge about what is available when there is a service in place, and also the stigma associated with the experience of mental health challenges.”

Plowright said various consequences come with failing to address adolescent mental health conditions.

“This extends to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.

“In addition, mental health directly impacts social ills such as grinding poverty, endemic joblessness, gender-based violence (GBV), and alcohol and drug abuse.”

Dr Alex Plowright, Community Health and Wellbeing Lead at Anglo American,.

“When left unaddressed, mental health issues can create residual trauma that you carry throughout your life.

“However, the experience of generalised mental health deficit by young people is often more pronounced than that experienced at other points in life, because of the vulnerabilities and the life course fluctuations and risk profile of adolescents that makes them inherently more vulnerable to most health-associated negative outcomes.

“Adults are often more equipped to deal with mental health issues, but ultimately, unresolved mental trauma will always create challenges in adulthood.”

Asked why South African youth were so vulnerable to mental health issues, Plowright said: “Young people generally are vulnerable to mental health issues, as it is linked with the experience of adolescence and also the physiological processes of change that young people go through.

“However, this is heavily pronounced in SA because of the economic landscape, poverty, peer pressure and societal norms and local factors such as the dichotomy of development which leads to opportunities for exposure to harmful societal pressure with poverty and structural challenges still present in so many communities across the country.”

She said it was important that South Africa prioritised mental health.

“I think it is beginning to be acknowledged as a driver of so many issues, but ultimately in a resource-constrained setting like South Africa, it’s about prioritisation; programmes supporting young people’s mental health are, in reality, few and far between especially those supporting the young people who need it most.

“The solution for me is about embedding mental health support through integrated “best buys” in the plethora of programmes and interventions available for young people and enabling comprehensive access through universal platforms such as school. This requires resources, and a change in approach but I don’t think it is impossible.”

Plowright has urged all youth battling with mental health issues to seek help.

“Don’t be afraid to seek help from others if needed, but simultaneously, practice self-care, sleep well, avoid harmful substances and alcohol and leverage peers and trusted adults for support.

“Having said this, when young people are facing challenges associated with meeting the basic needs for themselves and sometimes those in their household and family, this can be very difficult to manage.”

Parents also need to look out for changes in behaviour from their children, said Plowright.

“Look out for changes in behaviour, unusual patterns of behaviour and how they structure their day, lack of interest in their usual activities and excessive sleep. Symptoms of upset and withdrawal are also key.”

What should parents or caregivers be on the lookout for? How can they support the young people in their care?

Be aware of the change in behaviour

“If your child is struggling, it may not be very obvious,” says Dr Plowright. “It also tends to come on gradually, over time. But if you see signs such as risky or volatile behaviour, disengagement, abandoning their schoolwork, or drug use, it’s time to seek help. In addition, be sure to anticipate stressors such as looming exams.

Build a support system

“Prevention is better than cure,” she continues. “Make sure your teens and young people have people they can talk to, and know that they are loved and supported. Let them spend time with their friends to build a peer network of support, and connect them with key figures in the community who can be their role models.”

Encourage breaks and being present in the moment

Finally, she says, teens need to give themselves breaks in between studying, and try to take a step back when they’re feeling stressed. “Don’t obsess about the months ahead,” she says. “Take it one step at a time and don’t scare yourself unnecessarily!”

Saturday Star