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Wednesday, 8 January 2020

By Dr Lungi Nyathi

They are popular bright youngsters with everything to live for.  But behind the facade, some of our children live their lives with a sense of emptiness and self-loathing.

Young people experience issues ranging from anxiety, problems sleeping, online addiction, anger issues or mood swings through to self-harm, eating disorders, depression and thoughts of suicide.

The reasons why they are experiencing these issues are varied and complex, but can include family breakdowns, worries about bad news, peer pressure, school pressures, sexual assaults, body image issues, and bullying - all of which have exacerbated mental health-related issues within our youth.  We have seen up as much as a 35% increase in admissions for mental health conditions in the younger than 20 year old age band over the last 5 years.

Of acute relevance right now, is what we know to be an increased rate of suicide linked to the National Senior certificate (matric) results.   High school education remains a valued prize, as a passport to success, as well as for the inherent academic and personal opportunities it provides.  Education overall provides opportunities for creativity, reflection, socialisation and development.  The end of the high school education is thus a particularly anxiety-provoking time for many young people.

While self-imposed pressure to achieve is not a bad thing, it can take something like the suicide of a young one to remind us to pause and reflect on the stresses that are borne by young adults, whether academic, societal and/or personal.  Are we raising resilient young people to deal with the pressures of academia and life? Are we equipping teachers and parents sufficiently to understand, identify, support the mental wellbeing of young people through high school and in matric?

As Grade 12s (matriculants) wait for their results to decide where and what they will be doing next year or where they will be studying in 2020, everyone needs to ensure that all aspects of students’ lives promote good mental health and wellbeing, through various kinds of support services: family, academic, healthcare.

In families and as a society, we need to demonstrate to our children that it is normal to feel overwhelmed at times and it's good to acknowledge this feeling. More importantly, it's OK to talk.  This means facilitating many conversations in the home or with the help of a trained professional.  Last year alone, over half a billion Rand was paid by Medscheme for out-of-hospital consultations with psychologists and psychiatrists.  This may be the first step in addressing any underlying problems or preventing early mental stress from developing into something more serious.

Of course,  it has been encouraging that education departments have been dealing with such issues individually by hiring counsellors, providing social-emotional supports for learners and  teaching school personnel how to detect and help adolescents experiencing mental health issues or who are in crisis.

Indeed, counselling in schools can help young people in crisis and non-crisis situations, including assessing for risk of suicide or harm; listening nonjudgmentally; giving reassurance and information; encouraging appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

As teachers and counsellors deal with youth mental issues, friends and family should never ignore the warning signs. If a loved one is isolating themselves, indulging in substance use, or making statements about feeling lost or how life doesn't matter, don't pretend the situation will get better if you ignore it.

As parents, carers, relatives, teachers and friends of young people, we all have a responsibility to ensure they are provided with the opportunities to flourish.

Connecting with young people and taking an interest in their wellbeing is one of the most powerful strategies we all have available to us.

Learning about the signs and symptoms of mental disorders previously mentioned above can be a useful way of ensuring you can recognise when a young person may need support.   Most medical schemes provide access to mental wellbeing screening questionnaires when one does a health risk assessment in the clinics at pharmacies.

Mental health is and should be one of our absolute priorities and we want every child and young person to have appropriate access to emotional and mental well-being support in school. 

AfroCentric is specifically focussed on mental health and making sure that the health care system is geared towards enabling access to prevention, early diagnosis and treatment.  We do this with the medical schemes we work with and we will be looking at how we can work with schools in greater measure in 2020.

The truth is suicide can be prevented. If a student or learner is considering it, he or she needs help. While it may be prompted by many complex factors, and each case is different, there are actions we can take to improve mental wellbeing to systematically reduce these factors. Let us make it our responsibility.

We cannot allow poor mental health to fester in our society.  In 2020, let us commit to improving our mental wellbeing and endeavour that anyone who is struggling with mental illness can be assisted when they truly need it the most.

Dr Lungi Nyathi is Executive Director for Health Management at AfroCentric Group, owners of owners of Medscheme, South Africa’s largest health care management and risk administrators.

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