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Thursday, 6 October 2022

In South Africa and across the world, a spotlight has been shone on mental health. Although the mental health epidemic in South Africa is affecting people of all ages, it is perhaps our children who are suffering in silence the most. A recent Unicef report found that 65% of young people with mental health-related issues do not seek help.

According to Aimee Wesso-Roberts, Head of Lifestyle and Wellness Management at AfroCentric Group subsidiary Medscheme, support from parents can play an essential role in bridging this gap and getting our children the support they need.

Medscheme is a medical schemes administrator with nearly 4-million lives under its care.

"Medscheme data suggests that depression prevalence in this population could be more than three times higher than the number of adolescents accessing mental health benefits. Investing in adolescents' health and development is key to improving their wellbeing and supporting their future success," Wesso-Roberts said.

"Research shows early detection and intervention of mental disorders can prevent the progression of disorders, the onset of comorbid disorders or, at the very least, improve the management of mental health diagnosis sequelae. Intervening early enough could also prevent downstream effects relating to poor mental health such as substance abuse (drug and alcohol), risky sexual behaviour (increasing the risk of HIV infection) and other social problems," she added.

Paradoxically, other studies have also found that these conditions, where they already exist, increase children's vulnerability to mental disorders. Social media has also been found to have a major negative effect on adolescents and therefore exposure to these sites and mobile apps should be managed.

Parents and care givers can play an important role in creating a safe environment for their children. This includes parental involvement in their children's lives, providing a safe, positive home environment and fostering a relationship built on trust.

According to SA Child Gauge — an annual publication of the Children's Institute at the University of Cape Town that monitors progress towards realising children's rights – anxiety disorders, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are the most common mental disorders in children.
Wesso-Roberts recommends looking out for the following signs:

  • Persistent sadness that lasts two weeks or more
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable "highs" or feelings of euphoria.

Wesso-Roberts recognises that accessibility of mental health treatment in South Africa also needs to change. This is validated by the recent Global Mental Health Price Index 2022, which found South Africa to have the 24th most expensive mental healthcare in a list of 50 countries around the world. According to global averages and needs assessment, South Africa also has among the lowest number of mental health care workers in the world.

"This doesn't have to be this way. The cost and physical access of mental healthcare is perhaps its greatest barrier as the majority of people in this country."

However, she notes that the advent of digital interventions through telemedicine will continue to make psychological support more accessible and affordable for people, and especially children.

For Wesso-Roberts, mental wellness among our children may also be supported by lifestyle behaviours to help them build resilience and healthy relationships. "Exercise, nutrition and a healthy social life are critical in all our lives. Helping your children lay a foundation in these areas can help relieve stress, improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety."

Wesso-Roberts says, however, that parents and caregivers should not underestimate the value of talking about mental health in the home and/or speaking to a mental healthcare professional in helping their children live a healthy, fulfilling life. "While talking about mental health may seem daunting, there is so much support out there and there is no shame in seeking help. It is never too early to seek the right advice."

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