It’s that time of the year when end-of-year fatigue kicks in for everyone. This period is more stressful for young people with final exams looming and the holiday season starts where you have to put on your game face for a variety of social occasions with family and friends. As a result, many teenagers and adolescents experience mental health challenges at this time of year.
South Africa’s youth are particularly vulnerable, given that the vast majority live in impoverished communities, with very little to look forward to. Even if they do excel at school, the current unemployment figures leave many feeling despaired about their future. In addition, there is little to no mental health support for them.
When it comes to South Africa’s young people, their mental health is on a bit of a precipice. And the result is that many of them end up engaging in risky behaviours. We see this in many of our host communities – risky behaviour around alcohol and drugs, transactional sex between young women and older men, and a high incidence of teenage pregnancies.
The youth might have high ambitions, there’s currently a lack of opportunities for them, and no clear pathway ahead as they contemplate adulthood. And so feelings of hopelessness – especially for those approaching matric finals – tend to grow and proliferate.
The trouble is that the usual self-care and coping mechanisms suggested aren’t always available in a low-income context. And so their risk is exacerbated; it’s more pronounced. Many of them are struggling just to have their basic needs met – food, clothing, shelter – so they don’t really have the bandwidth to sort out their mental health as well, and many don’t know who to ask for help.
Many children need help
The statistics show the extent of the problem: UNICEF’s South Africa U-Report 2023 poll showed that as many as 60% of children and youth felt they needed mental health support over the past year. Of those, however, only 63% of respondents who needed support actively sought it – mainly because they just didn’t know where to go.
The consequences of failing to address adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.
So what should parents or caregivers be on the lookout for? How can they support the young people in their care?
1. Be aware of the change in behaviour
If your child is struggling, it may not be very obvious. It also tends to come on gradually, over time. But if you see signs such as risky or volatile behaviour, disengagement, abandoning their schoolwork, or drug use, it’s time to seek help. In addition, be sure to anticipate stressors such as looming exams.
2. Build a support system
Prevention is better than cure. Make sure your teens and young people have people they can talk to, and know they are loved and supported. Let them spend time with their friends to build a peer network of support. Connect them with key figures in the community who can be their role models.
3. Encourage breaks and being present in the moment
Finally, she says, teens need to give themselves breaks in between studying, and try to take a step back when they’re feeling stressed. Don’t obsess about the months ahead. Take it one step at a time and don’t scare yourself unnecessarily!
Parents can reach out to Childline South Africa through their website, www.childlinesa.org.za to seek help on behalf of their adolescent youth. Parent may also call their free Helpline 24X7 on 116.
Dr Plowright is Community Health and Wellbeing Lead at Anglo American.