SA’s child mental health crisis

It estimated that mental disorders accounted for 13% of the global burden of ill-health among those aged between 10 and 19 Photo: Supplied

It estimated that mental disorders accounted for 13% of the global burden of ill-health among those aged between 10 and 19 Photo: Supplied

The 16th issue of the SA Child Gauge – an annual publication from the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town – has revealed that the majority of young people with mental health disorders in the country remain untreated, and that only one in 10 children with a diagnosable and treatable mental health issue is able to access any kind of care.

According to Advocate Bongani Majola, chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission, due to historical neglect and underinvestment in mental health, there are gaps in prevention and care for children and adolescents in South Africa.

Majola was among the speakers at the launch of this year’s SA Child Gauge at the University of Cape Town. The publication focused on child and adolescent mental health and on the way early experiences of adversity rippled out across the course of a young person’s life and future generations at great cost to individuals and society. It estimated that mental disorders accounted for 13% of the global burden of ill-health among those aged between 10 and 19.

Majola said the gaps in prevention and care often led to gross human rights violations that robbed young people not only of their quality of life, but often also of life itself.

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A recent publication revealed that suicide triggered by depression was the fourth leading cause of death among youngsters aged between 15 and 19.

Majola said the Covid-19 pandemic had intensified the pressures felt by children and adolescents. As a result, a whole generation’s mental health and wellbeing has been jeopardised.

He said

Children and adolescents feel afraid, angry and anxious because their routines, education, recreation and family finances have been disrupted. Other notable factors that contribute to children’s mental wellbeing in South Africa are high levels of racial inequality, gender inequality, poverty and malnutrition, disability, gender-based violence at home, and also violence against children

Professor Linda Richter from the Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University said that children and adolescents affected by mental health disorders were often unable to talk about their feelings or ask for the help they needed.

“A key thing to remember is that most children and adolescents go through life well, despite what at times may seem like very difficult challenges. Most children have episodes of anxiety at some point in their lives. In a country beset by poverty, inequality, social exclusion and violence, our biggest responsibility is to our children and adolescents. We need to identify early on those who have difficulties and try to rectify these challenges.”

According to the publication, many children in South Africa were failing to thrive due to widespread violence, discrimination and poverty.

“Other [mental conditions] requiring attention include psychotic disorders, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, learning disorders and conduct disorders.

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There is also a high burden of substance abuse disorders in South Africa: between 20% and 49% of those admitted to drug treatment centres in the first six months of 2020 were aged between 10 and 19,” the publication stated.

It estimated that 90% of children in the country were unable to access mental healthcare.

This unmet need was associated with poorer performance at school and risky behaviours such as substance abuse and criminal activities, which then affected skills development, readiness for adult life roles, social and economic independence, and ability to contribute to families’ economic security.

“In South Africa, widespread poverty and violence continue to cut short children’s potential, despite our constitutional promise to ‘improve the quality of life’ and ‘free the potential of all citizens’. Two-thirds of South African children (63%) live below the upper-bound poverty line.

According to the publication:

Nearly one in two children (42%) have experienced violence, including physical violence (35%) and sexual abuse (35%), and, while the suburbs offer a measure of protection, violence in many areas is all-pervasive, with 99% of children in Soweto having either experienced or witnessed violence in their homes, schools and communities

The SA Child Gauge stated that, in order to prevent mental health disorders in children, there was a need to prevent violence and promote inclusion. Furthermore, children needed to be engaged with as key stakeholders and active citizens to ensure that their insights gave rise to child- and youth-friendly policies and programmes.

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