South Africa continues to struggle with high levels of unemployment, violence and poverty. In fact, our country has the greatest income inequality in the world; more than half of our children (63%) live in households that are below the poverty line.
The connection between poverty and mental health problems is well documented: People who live with mental health issues often face additional challenges in making a living, and people living in poverty are at greater risk of developing mental health disorders.
All of this disproportionately affects young people, yet fewer than 10% of youth who need mental health services have access to them. Research also shows that the more violence that young people are exposed to, the greater the likelihood of them developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Violence, poverty, discrimination, and marginalisation all negatively impact young people’s health, well-being, and hope for the future. Compounded over time, these traumatic events greatly compromise young people’s ability to focus on their learning, make healthy decisions, and engage positively with their families and peers. This vicious cycle places a heavy burden on state resources.
A local non-profit – Waves for Change, which provides surf therapy for children and young people in under-resourced communities – recently reported that youth in its programme had experienced eight highly traumatic events each year. Compare that to youth in the United Kingdom or the United States, who experience less than five traumatic events over a lifetime.
But a new report from EMpower details that it is possible to strengthen the mental health and resilience of young South Africans, even with limited resources. The first step to achieving this is to understand that mental health is not a mental illness.
We can strengthen mental health like we strengthen physical bodies, and there are things we can do to fortify young people’s mental health— even those who have experienced repeated trauma— so they can withstand life’s challenges and ultimately thrive.
Our research also shows that it matters who provides emotional support and how. Young people in our focus groups all spoke about the importance of having access to a non-judgemental space where they can talk to someone whom they can trust.
Young people share more easily with someone they can relate to, so many of our grantee partners prioritise investing in and hiring staff who come from backgrounds similar to those of the young people they serve. This shared background, language, and cultural heritage make it easier to form trusting and meaningful relationships.
We also know that it is vital to act sooner rather than later. The same factors that make a young person more likely to make rash, sometimes irreversible decisions also make them more likely to be open to interventions. Practically, this means if you experience trauma as a child, there is a big chance it will affect you.
However, interventions that address this trauma while the brain is still forming (before age 24) can make the difference between living a healthy life versus struggling with mental health difficulties throughout adulthood. To bolster mental health and resilience — and avert expensive and burdensome interventions down the road— we must be there for young people while they are growing up.
Staff working with young people should also understand the impact that trauma has on mental health. Trauma-informed care training should be provided for staff, along with emotional and psychological support for them to work through their own trauma-related issues that may arise.
The good news is that funds do not need to be diverted from other programming to meet young people’s mental health needs. In fact, we strongly advocate for diverse and robust youth programming to continue but for organisations and funders to bring a mental health lens to all of their work. By making small adjustments to existing programming to account for these approaches, they can be more effective.
One positive outcome of the Covid pandemic is the heightened awareness of the importance of mental health for all people and more open conversations — in homes, schools, work settings, places of worship, and communities. These discussions are helping de-stigmatise and humanise this important issue.
But we cannot stop there. We have all the necessary tools. Now we must take action, boost resources, and adopt practical strategies to meet our young people’s mental health needs and build their resilience.
Deborah Diedericks is EMpower’s programme officer in South Africa.