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Pupils’ mental health issues laid bare

The most commonly reported mental health concerns for children during their primary school years are anxiety and depression. Picture: ANA Archives

The most commonly reported mental health concerns for children during their primary school years are anxiety and depression. Picture: ANA Archives

Published Jul 5, 2022


Cape Town - The most commonly reported mental health concerns for children during their primary school years are anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, aggression, substance abuse, and conduct and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders.

High rates of bullying are also common, particularly for boys.

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This is according to the 16th issue of the South African Child Gauge, titled Children’s mental health: A catalyst for development.

The South African Child Gauge is published by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Children’s Institute (CI). Its partners are the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) South Africa, the Department of Science and Innovation–National Research Foundation Centre for Excellence in Human Development, the University of the Witwatersrand, the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation and the LEGO Foundation.

The report found that while primary schools can be a safe and supportive space for learners, the transition to primary school can be stressful and learners can struggle with associated changes such as new teachers, peers, rules and routines.

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“Additionally, many learners are still exposed to corporal punishment, despite it being outlawed in South Africa in 1997. Corporal punishment has been linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression, aggression, and suicidal ideation.”

“Early signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and affect dysregulation (impaired ability to regulate and/or tolerate negative emotional states) can begin to emerge at a young age. Risk factors include exposure to early adversities such as violence, maltreatment, household stress or trauma, poverty, and poor nutrition,” the report read.

Authors found that half of all adult mental health problems have their origins prior to age 14, and 75% by age 24, making early prevention and promotion essential.

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However there is a “treatment gap” with an estimated 90% of children with mental disorders in South Africa unable to access mental health care.

“The unmet need for mental health care is associated with poorer performance at school, and risk-taking behaviours such as substance abuse and criminal activity, which then impacts on skills development, readiness for adult life roles, social and economic independence and ability to contribute to family economic security.”

According to the authors, schools and other educational institutions have the potential to be a powerful resource for promoting and protecting child, adolescent and youth mental health in South Africa.

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“School-based interventions can be delivered effectively by mental health professionals, teachers, paraprofessionals, lay counsellors and/or peers.”

“Protective factors such as early identification of mental health problems and access to mental health support can have a positive, lifelong impact on a child’s health and well-being.”

“While national policy exists to support the mental health of learners and students, the implementation thereof, at a provincial, district and institutional level, is weak and requires attention,” the authors said.

Other interventions noted include building a positive school climate by improving relationships within schools, creating an environment that promotes respect and values diversity and building skills such as emotional regulation into the curriculum.

Student wellbeing could also be positively influenced by improving educator well-being, through interventions such as task sharing that reduce job demands and increase job resources, the researchers said.

Targeted support and appropriate referrals for those showing signs or symptoms of mental health conditions, should also be offered and parents can be involved in initiatives that promote mental health and well-being.

Cape Times