Shayni Geffen, SAFMH’s Project Leader: Advocacy and Awareness spoke on a panel hosted by Waves for Change about the critical role young people play in shaping mental health programming and policy in South Africa, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Below is her opening statement and the webinar recording.
Last year UNICEF released a report where young people from around the world shared their experiences and perceptions of mental health.
Across 13 countries included in this report, young people spoke about challenges to having good mental health. This ranged from bullying to the impact of COVID-19 to not being able to access the mental health care they need:
A young person from Malawi shared: “When you see that you don’t have anything at your home and there is no food, you cannot ask for transport money from your parents so that you can go and share your problems with someone, it just makes you to say, ‘Ah I will just see how to deal with it alone.’
Mental illness is a leading undiagnosed and under-treated of all health conditions among young people globally. Almost 1 in 7 young people around the world are living with a diagnosable mental illness and many more young people deal with poor mental health daily.
But young people have also been very clear about the many ways they look after their mental health and many opportunities that exist for strengthening their mental health. This included having at least one trustworthy adult in their lives, stable friendships, and safe spaces to be themselves.
A young person from Jamaica said “I think school kinda helps most of us children because sometimes we can get away from the toxic household and we can actually be with friends that make us happy.”
Creating policies and laws that promote and protect mental health, supporting caregivers to provide nurturing care, and implementing school-based and community-based mental health programmes are among the most effective promotion strategies for countries, regardless of their income status to improve youth mental health.
Importantly, across developed and developing countries young people share the difficulties around speaking about their mental health, with many opting to keep emotional and behavioural challenges to themselves. Young people cited stigma about talking about mental health and the lack of listening or understanding from adults as being the two leading causes.
A young person from Switzerland said: I think we have a hard time with mental health as youth because we do not talk enough about it, because people are scared to talk about it. Maybe if we could express ourselves more without feeling judged or assaulted, maybe we would make some progress.
A young person from Indonesia shares “When I was younger, I used to be bullied, and then I would usually tell my parents about it. But then as the bullying went on they ended up telling me to solve my own problems.
What is clear is that across the world, as adults, mentors, advocates, decision makers we must do better to listen to young people about mental health. How can we do this?
Firstly, by making it clear to the young people in our lives that there is no right way to ask for help. There are no magic words or secret passwords to get help and when a young person says I am struggling through their words or actions we must pause, listen, and say what’s going on here. And if you don’t know how to respond in the moment that’s okay too, but you have a responsibility to seek out what resources exist in your community and online about how best to start this conversation to demonstrate your support.
We must ensure that we set up the right conditions for young people to open up. In South Africa about 65% of young people who shared having some form of a mental health issue but did not seek help. We have to model what it means to talk about mental health and we have to ask for help. We cannot expect young people to know the importance of taking care of their mental health if we do not do the same.
Secondly what we have seen is that when young people feel like they can share their feelings and experiences, it makes a world of difference. This exists at an individual level and at the country level. By listening to the guidance of young people, we as clinicians, advocates and decision makers get to understand what we need to do to improve mental health care. For example, tackling poverty so that young people do not need to choose between food or transport to their psychologist, making sure that the house is not a toxic place that children need to leave to find refuge elsewhere and investing in strengthening meaningful and stable peer to peer support.
Today we have the privilege of listening to a panel of young experts from across the globe who will be sharing their experiences on how they are shaping mental health care advocacy and services for young people. I invite you all to be present. To be engaged and to reflect throughout on your part in improving the mental wellbeing of young people in your life.
You can watch the rest of the webinar below.