’Stripped of being a child’, suicidal thoughts on rise amid Cape Flats gang violence
Cape Town – Suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety have increased significantly among many Cape Flats children as bullets fly indiscriminately and with regularity in gang-related violence. They are mentally scarred by the fear of being hit by a stray bullet – becoming yet another victim like the 8-year-old shot in the head in Manenberg over Easter while playing with friends.
Some even ask why they weren’t rather left to die than have to live with a disability. In one case, a 7-year-old recently injured himself jumping through a window when experiencing an anxiety attack sparked by being a shooting victim nearly two years ago.
“We are seeing more children suffering from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Those three things have increased dramatically,” Judy Strickland, founder of the Hope House Counselling Centre, which has been offering donation-based counselling services to the Cape Town community for 15 years, told IOL on Wednesday.
‘’Counselling is needed and isn’t always affordable. That is why Hope House offers what we do. We don’t charge for our counselling as it is done on a donation basis. We are available to everyone for any problem.
‘’These children are experiencing trauma every day and then we expect them to go and learn in school. They can’t because they are in fight, flight or freeze mode.
‘’We are seeing a lot more children. However, not all the parents in the areas where gang violence is prevalent are bringing their children for counselling and that’s where problems can arise.
‘’We get the children to not only work through the trauma but also give them the skills on how to keep themselves safe and what the things are they can control because we can’t take them out of the situation. We also try to equip the parents on how to deal with the children.’’
Research has shown that even hearing about violence from others had almost the same effect as actually witnessing it, with many children suffering from a case of distressing ’’exposure accumulation’’ in many forms.
Cape Flats activist Roegshanda Pascoe, who is still under witness protection after testifying against gangsters in a murder trial and whose family was lucky to survive nearly two years ago after bullets ripped through their Manenberg house (she was absent at the time), told IOL: ‘’Those are the very children who often end up running with guns and shooting because they don’t see any other way.’’
Then there are those like her 7-year-old son who is tormented by nightmares and too afraid to leave home.
‘’We moved recently and my grandson got an anxiety attack. His father went to the shop and he said he didn’t want to go with him, because he has been traumatised the most by the shooting. If we aren’t driving, he won’t walk in the street.
‘’He got an anxiety attack by being on his own and stepped through two windows and cut himself badly. He literally went through them; it could have been worse. He didn't care how badly he wounded himself, he wanted to get out of the house.
‘’He doesn't want to speak about what happened. He is young and doesn’t know how to process it. The shooting happened two years ago but it never leaves him. If he hears a car backfire, he looks for the safest corner and keeps his hands over his ears.
‘’He has been stripped of being a child because now you have to even be careful of playing with balloons that can pop. Most mornings he wakes up and says he had this awful dream. This morning again he said, 'I dreamt a dog has killed all of you and I thought it was going to come for me’. So he is wetting the bed and things like that.
‘’But what about the children facing gunfire daily. What about the children that have been shot and maimed. Psychologically, they never recover and and carry it for the rest of their life.
‘’I look at my daughter that was shot in 2013. She said to me the other day, ‘if ever they want to shoot me again, I want to die in the process because I never want to go through that again’.
‘’’There are children in so much anger and pain. Some have been shot in the back and can’t walk again, not understanding why they can’t play with the other children any more, asking why they weren’t rather left to die.
‘’Most of the victims never wanted to live in an area where there are shootings in the first place. Last year I went back to my home in Manenberg but I couldn’t enter my yard or home. I started sweating and everything became overwhelming for me.
‘’I broke down and cried when some of my colleagues wanted me to show them what had happened. It was too much for me and I wasn’t even there when the shooting transpired.’’
With children vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger and confusion, Strickland believes more community-based counsellors are needed, particularly within schools
Research conducted by the Child Guidance Clinic at the University of Cape Town showed that too little is being done to understand the extent or effective treatment of mental illness and distress in South Africa, with a dearth of studies on effective treatments for young people.
Latin American Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral once wrote: “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life.
’’Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘tomorrow,’ his name is today.”