Children’s mental health to be taken seriously

There are programmes to help children but funds for those are thinly stretched. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane /African News Agency (ANA)

There are programmes to help children but funds for those are thinly stretched. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane /African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 10, 2024


Cape Town - One in seven children have a treatable mental health condition, says the South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop).

With Children’s Mental Health Week being from February 5 to 11, experts have reiterated the seriousness of safeguarding children’s mental health.

Most of the children will carry the burden through to adulthood because of South Africa’s chronic lack of specialists and facilities to support their needs.

Psychiatrist Dr Alicia Porter, a board member of Sasop, said children had a right to good mental health and to access to age-appropriate mental health care. But the public health-care system was failing to provide it.

She said mental health conditions were the leading cause of illness and disability in children and teens, with 50-80% of adult mental health disorders originating in childhood, impacting on physical and mental health, increasing the risk of substance abuse, and limiting opportunities for education and employment.

“In South Africa, we are completely unable to meet the mental health needs of children and adolescents, and we, as psychiatrists, have been calling for urgent action for a long time. We need to act now to protect the next generation and prevent the socio-economic consequences of poor mental health,” Porter said.

Kavya Swaminathan, an interventions team supervisor at the TEARS Foundation, a crisis-intervention and advocacy organisation, said children could face many challenges while growing up which could present from any age.

“A child can grow up in an abusive household, either being survivors of abuse themselves or witnesses to recurring abuse. Growing up in such a situation can result in early present anxiety, malforming social relations, and a number of other mental health-related issues,” she said.

Swaminathan said children can develop mental health issues based on genetic and environmental factors.

“Well-adjusted children who grow up in good homes can face pressure once they start going to school.

“Social pressure from peers, and more serious instances like bullying, can have deep impacts on kids. These can happen at any time. A child can never face bullying until late into their school careers, or maybe they only start feeling anxious when matric exams happen. Each case is unique and needs to be observed and handled accordingly,” she said.

Swaminathan said the best way to deal with mental health was to first remove the stigma, shame and isolation that went with it.

“Being open about mental health issues is the first step. The next would be to listen to them, and take what they say seriously.

“As adults and professionals, we do have a tendency to trivialise certain aspects of children’s life. The phrase ‘it gets better’, dismisses children’s concerns as a ‘children’s matter or phase’ is counter-productive.

“As a child, your concerns are different to those of an adult – to them, friendship and fitting in might truly feel like the end of the world.

“We need to take what they say seriously, express and share openly about mental health, and be as honest as we can, within reason,” she said.

The Children’s Institute, UCT, Child Health Priorities Association and the South African Paediatric Association have called for child health services to be bolstered.

They said child and adolescent mental health services were particularly thinly stretched and underfunded.

“While more than 10% of children have a diagnosable and treatable mental disorder, only one in 10 of these children is currently able to access care.

“We therefore wish to remind the minister of health and the provincial MECs and HODs of their international and constitutional obligations to safeguard the health of our most vulnerable children, and call on them to issue clear instructions to districts and facilities to ensure that maternal and child health services are prioritised and protected.

“Such measures are essential if the government is to honour the South African delegation’s promise to the committee that budgets for children will not be touched and will be ring-fenced so that the welfare and rights of the children are upheld,” they said.

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