Pretoria - The 16th annual South African Child Gauge has revealed that up to 20% of children will develop a mental disorder or a neurodevelopmental disability during childhood.
In fact, the annual review of the situation of the country’s children reported that the worrying statistic of children being hard hit by mental disorders was just the tip of the iceberg.
The review, released to coincide with Youth Day last week, was published by the Children’s Institute at the UCT, in partnership with Unicef SA, the DSI-National Research Foundation’s Centre for Excellence in Human Development, Wits, the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation as well as the Lego Foundation.
The 2021/22 issue focused on the Child and Adolescent Mental Health, under the theme: “Promoting Sustainable Livelihoods and Resilience of Young People for a Better Tomorrow.”
This year’s report highlighted how children and adolescents in South Africa face multiple adversities that erode their mental health – between 10% and 20% of children would develop a mental disorder or a neurodevelopmental disability.
For this reason the authors called on the government and society to create a more supportive and enabling environment that nurtured child and adolescent mental health, protecting them from harm and enabling them to access care and support.
Zanele Twala, chief executive of the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation, said it was disheartening that 25 years into democracy and its promise to improve the quality of life and free the potential of all citizens, widespread poverty, inequality and violence continued to affect the mental health of young people.
Twala’s comments came as the report further revealed that 63% of children in South Africa lived in poverty, frequently in environments where the stress of material insecurity was made worse by inadequate services, discrimination and violence.
In addition, 39% of children, the report said, lived beneath the food poverty line, where food insecurity further intensified conflict in the home.
To make matters worse, nearly 1 in 2 children in South Africa were said to have experienced violence, with 35% having experienced physical violence and 35% some form of sexual abuse.
Violence in the country was said to be so pervasive in some areas, that 99% of children in the Birth to Thirty Study undertaken in Soweto reported experiencing or witnessing violence in their homes, schools and communities. Given that children were said to be more likely to experience fear, anxiety, panic and shock in the immediate aftermath of a violent event, the lack of appropriate support meant the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance use and other mental health challenges.
“Due to historical neglect and underinvestment in mental health, there are serious gaps in prevention and care for children and adolescents in South Africa that rob them of their quality of life and potential to build resilience,” said advocate Bongani Majola, chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission.
Professor Shanaaz Mathews, director of the Children’s Institute, said given the scale and intergenerational nature of violence against children, the country’s response to trauma needed to extend beyond dedicated psychological and psychiatric services.
Early intervention was cited as critical, especially in schools as 50% of adult mental health disorders were reportedly established by age 14.