Young people are being left to suffer alone or lash out in violence and self-harm, with poor mental health at the core of a multiple social issues plaguing society’s most vulnerable communities, says Afrika Tikkun Services, a youth and skills development organisation.
Recently reported deaths of young people related to substance abuse and gun-violence indicate a state of emergency existing in the townships and villages of South Africa. This situation requires deliberate and intensified action. As we reflect on these tragic events, this month being Mental Illness Awareness Month, should be an opportunity to highlight how mental illness factors into the social response to poverty, unemployment and inequality.
South Africa is already facing a productivity problem with its current workforce, and issues such as poverty, substance abuse and poor mental health contribute to the ability of workers to produce value and grow the economy, says Onyi Nwaneri, CEO of Afrika Tikkun Services.
Although there are millions of despondent youths who believe finding work will be the end of their troubles, it must be emphasised that even in the workplace, young people remain at risk of mental illness as a result of social and economic pressures. This is in addition to the sect of the population which is already mentally ill by the time they begin work.
Employers have the moral responsibility to lend more than just lip-service to the plight of silently suffering workers who are being crushed by the pressures of life while producing value for the companies they work for, Nwaneri says. “Companies should be actively applying globally recognised strategies to combat poor mental health in the workplace, not just to improve productivity, but to create happier, more ethical work environments,” she adds.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, although in most cases these go undetected and untreated until much later on in life. The WHO also estimates that one in four people worldwide will experience some form of mental health problem during their lifetime.
Unemployment and economic uncertainty play a major role in the tendency for young people to turn to unhealthy ways to cope with crushing depression and anxiety which often follows recession conditions in developing countries.
Mental illness among young people in the workplace under these economic conditions is painfully under-addressed. With retrenchments, harsher working conditions and uncertainty plaguing the minds of South Africa’s shrinking and ageing workforce, young, employed people risk lower levels of productivity because life is decidedly tougher for the average worker. Higher living costs as a result of consecutive fuel and food price increases this year have added tremendous pressure to the breadwinners and young entry level workers in the country.
“Young people congregate in great numbers for the purpose of drinking, while there are not enough gatherings for the purpose of uplifting themselves and their communities. This demonstrates the great void that exists where leadership and youth-focused community development should be,” says Nwaneri.
“As a parent, it is heartbreaking to watch so much potential and life cut short so unceremoniously. As an activist for youth and children’s rights it saddens me to witness the low morale, lack of positive leadership in communities which leads young people into dangerous situations surrounding alcohol, drugs and gun violence,” says Nwaneri.
Because of this void, mental health issues are not being picked up early enough by family members in the home or community members. Young people are struggling with the stress of unemployment, studying in poverty and the fear of an uncertain future as the economy evolves rapidly.
Instead of having access to avenues through which they can vent, seek help and find support in the community, substance abuse is often the path of least resistance they follow in the absence of obvious alternatives.
There still exists the culturally entrenched taboos which also prevent families from properly monitoring and taking care of each other’s mental health. People often only receive help from the public health system when something drastic happens including suicide attempts, violence, alcoholism and drug overdoses.
The lack of data on mental illness patterns in South Africa points to part of the problem which is a lack of political and scientific will to get to the heart of the crisis. The results of South Africa’s mental health issues can be seen in the high rates of murder, gender-based violence, unemployment and dwindling education outcomes, but the matter is not given enough attention.
According to the African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), about one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems. This does not include more serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The Life Esidimeni tragedy of 2016 where 144 public mental health patients died during a devastating transition to smaller institutions indicates that even serious mental illness is inadequately dealt with in South Africa.
“Young people are hungry for hope. They are starved for vision and a guiding hand to show them how to prosper. Unfortunately, the efforts made by government and community-based organisations to create productive and safe communities where young people can flourish are just not reaching everyone fast enough. We need the buy-in of all role players to fight this growing social crisis.” concludes Nwaneri.