Opinionista Thaakiera Ackerdien 15 June 2021

Silent epidemic: Families need to talk about mental health — for the sake of South African youth

While many South Africans fear the deadly effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is another epidemic that runs rampant among young South Africans — mental illness. This epidemic strikes silently, and sufferers often don’t seek help.

Thaakiera Ackerdien

Thaakiera Ackerdien is a 21-year-old journalist student at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Young South Africans are disproportionately affected by depression and anxiety, even more so with the challenges of the lockdown and its isolating effects. While lockdown regulations have been somewhat relaxed recently, the effects still linger. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has reported a major increase in depression and anxiety, which could lead to suicidal thoughts, following the lockdown. Suicide and depression are nothing new to the youth, however. In 2017 Sadag reported the youngest-ever suicide in South Africa, that of a six-year-old boy.  A 2011 study found that a quarter of grade 8-11 learners across South Africa, had experienced symptoms of depression, with one in six having thought about committing suicide or had made plans to do so. 

Another study found that one in every four South African university students are depressed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. 

Yet, few seem willing to listen. Mental illness is not something that a lot of South African families are willing to talk about openly, especially in brown and black families. I speak from experience. The issues are often treated as taboo, things that are not meant to be spoken about openly. 

We are told that the youth is the future, that it is our responsibility to build a better future for South Africa, yet when we cry out for help all cries seem to fall on deaf ears. The expectations for the youth are so high it is no wonder so many of us suffer from anxiety and depression. Mental illness is an epidemic that can and does cause the death of many young South Africans. Just last month a grade 12 student at Rhenish Girls’ High committed suicide. The month before that a 15-year-old grade 10 learner from Scottsville High School hanged herself in the school’s sickbay. 

We should not feel the need to keep such issues silent — when we do that, it causes those who suffer to feel even more isolated and ashamed. Only about 25% of suicidal youths ever speak up about the issues they are facing. Many never even seek professional help. 

Mental health should be considered just as important as physical health. We need to work towards ending the stigma surrounding mental health and asking for help in this country. Counselling and mental health services should be way more accessible and available to those who need them. 

The findings of these studies and the heartbreaking stories of teen suicide suggest that our youth is crying out for help. Suicide is 100% preventable if we are willing to lend those who need it a helping hand. If we cannot help our youth we cannot hope to see a brighter future for our country. DM

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