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COVID-19

Experts ring the warning bells over a mental health crisis among South African’s children during the pandemic

Experts ring the warning bells over a mental health crisis among South African’s children during the pandemic

For the past two years, psychologists and caregivers have been sounding the alarm over the number of children who need mental healthcare during the pandemic. How can we effectively address this issue in the year ahead?

Covid-19 and the measures that have been implemented to contain the spread of the virus in the past two years have disrupted nearly every aspect of children’s lives, and there is growing evidence that depression and anxiety have risen radically during the pandemic – even among young school children.

Before the pandemic, a mental health crisis was already brewing among children in South Africa struggling with abuse, eating disorders, bullying and racism, or diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions.

Confidence Popela, a Grade 10 learner at DZJ Mtebule High School in Nkowankowa, Limpopo, can’t recall the last time she didn’t feel anxious. Her relationships with her closest friends suffered when her school went into remote teaching and learning last year. Popela now goes to school three days a week, as part of the Department of Basic Education’s phased reopening and rotational learning approach. She spends the other two days at home, studying alone.

“Staying at home is really stressful because I do not have the motivation that I get from being around my friends… I get depressed, I get anxiety, and I just feel like my grades are going to drop more if [Covid-19] continues,” said Popela.

Popela said the uncertainty that shrouds the pandemic has made her feel sadder and lonelier. “It’s so overwhelming because most days I’m at home alone. When I’m alone I tend to think a lot.

“It’s really not easy to concentrate at home. I’m a social person and I don’t like to study alone,” said Popela. “So it’s really depressing.”

There is growing evidence that depression and anxiety have spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic, even among school children, said Joanne Hardman, associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s School of Education.

The #LearninginCovidtimes study, conducted by the Western Cape Commission for Children, focused on children’s experience of learning during the pandemic. According to the commission’s investigations and advice officer, Tessa Goldschmidt, the research found that children had many challenges learning during the pandemic, including concerns about “whether they are receiving quality education, and if they are being adequately prepared for the next grade, as the curriculum was trimmed. Children also had to adapt to distance learning, which was stressful and difficult for many. We live in a country where inequality is rife, and the digital divide is huge, and not many children have access to the technological resources or social support they need to engage effectively in learning,” said Goldschmidt.

“We are social beings, our brain doesn’t develop without social interaction,” Hardman said. “Higher mental functioning begins in the relationships we have with peers, teachers and adults,” said Hardman.

Cristine Scolari, a clinical psychologist at Seriti Therapy and Assessment Centre in Bedfordview, told DM168 that she has seen many children who have lost interest and become despondent during the pandemic, and whose interest in schoolwork and extramural activities has been affected.

“Children and teenagers that keenly participated in sports and other extramural activities have also taken an emotional knock,” said Scolari.

The pandemic has affected children in different developmental stages differently, she said. “Adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 have been adversely affected by limited chances of interacting with other teenagers. Many ‘fun’ things such as parties and sports events or festivals have been cancelled or curtailed, making it very difficult to meet other teens outside of their friend group,” said Scolari.

She added that adolescents often have more academic pressure. “During this time it is common for adolescents to worry about their future as well as feel uncertain about what lies ahead for them. They also experience much loneliness…”

Tinyiko Khosa said Covid-19 has been affecting her 16-year-old daughter, Anita, “mentally, physically and emotionally”. Anita struggled with socialising even before the pandemic, and Covid-19 has made her even more reserved. Fear of the virus has increased her feelings of anxiety. “She goes to school stressed and anxious.”

Anita’s high school has encouraged students who bottle up their feelings of anxiety and sadness to talk to its educators, but it “hasn’t provided a professional or qualified counsellor”, said Khosa. Anita has been seeing a private psychologist for months.

Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga told DM168 that there “has been great effort made by provincial education departments, education districts, schools, stakeholders, civil society and community-based organisations to reorient psychosocial support services for children in the Covid-19 context.”

But more can be done. “The task is overwhelming and availability of highly skilled psychosocial support professionals is a limitation. While psychosocial support service provision is not a competency of the DBE, the sector is prepared to explore possibilities of task-sharing with existing auxiliary human capacity … to strengthen the response of the basic education sector to the psychological and mental wellbeing of children,” he said.

“We need to understand that a number of children have lost caregivers, and this loss will be felt long after we have dealt with Covid,” said Hardman.

It is crucial that we take action now. “I would like to see devoting at least one hour 30 minutes per week to mental health – children can do mindfulness exercises; they can have discussions with each other; a professional can come to the school to speak to the children. There are a number of things we can do to let children know that we see them, we hear them,” she added.

Hardman would like to see a team of specialists address the issue – and to create things such as podcasts or YouTube videos for caregivers and children about how to deal with mental health issues. DM168

If you suspect you might need help, or you know someone who is struggling, contact any of the following organisations for advice and support:

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag). Contact a Sadag counsellor between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Sunday: 011 234 4837

Sadag has a WhatsApp counselling line that operates from 9am to 4pm: 076 882 2775

Sadag 24-hour mental health helpline: 0800 456 789

Gauteng Mental Health Society: 011 984 4038

SA Federation for Mental Health: 011 781 1852

Lifeline South Africa: 0861 322 322

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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