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Our education and health systems are failing to tackle teen mental health stigma


Lyr Weltsman is the founder of Breaking The Chalk and a member of the Wellcome Mental Health Data Prize of the Mental Health Youth Advisory Network.

According to Unicef polling, a staggering 65% of young South Africans said they had some form of a mental health issue but did not seek help, and 18% were worried about what people would think if they spoke up about their mental health.

South African teens are the most at-risk group when it comes to suicide, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. A quarter of young South Africans experience depression and anxiety, and up to 20% of high school pupils have tried to take their own lives. Sadly, self-harm is a significant factor in South African rural areas, where accessible mental healthcare is low and has a high stigma – with those suffering from mental health labelled as “possessed”.

When looking at these statistics, we must ask: what is going wrong, and what do we need to do? I was recently asked to be a part of the youth advisory network of the Wellcome Mental Health Data Prize, which calls upon South African researchers to analyse existing data to find new solutions to manage, prevent and treat anxiety and depression among young people.

A focus for this research prize and funding is the inclusion of people with lived experience. As someone with mental health lived experience since the age of 14, which left me bedridden, I believe it’s this kind of research and approach that can finally make a difference in understanding what works to help those with mental illness, and importantly why this is. We need to understand the why at a fundamental level, so that we can design the proper interventions needed to combat the youth mental health crisis.

Why the stigma?

When we look at our young people’s mental health, we must note the influential systems that play a role in their lives such as family, school, society and environment. These systems foster two of the biggest detriments to youth mental health – stigma and stereotypes.

The New Freedom Commission on Mental Health describes mental health stigma as a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, avoid and discriminate against people with mental illness. And these notions seep into the systems that are meant to support and inform young people about how to take care of their mental health and make them feel safe enough to speak up.

According to findings from the latest Unicef South Africa U-Report poll, a staggering 65% of young people stated that they had some form of a mental health issue but did not seek help. Eighteen percent said they were worried about what people would think if they spoke up about their mental health. More than a quarter said they didn’t think their mental health problem was severe enough to seek help, while 20% didn’t know where to get help.

Further to this, the World Health Organization’s latest research shows that globally teen suicide has become the fourth-leading cause of death in older adolescents (15 to 19 years), warning that many in this age group are battling mental health issues with little to no help. 

The systems surrounding our young people are failing them

To remedy the youth mental health crisis, we need to start with the systems that can raise awareness and break these stigmas and stereotypes of mental health and illness. For young people’s well-being, I believe mental health must be a priority within school systems, as it provides at least one supportive space where they can get help.

We must also focus on families’ perspectives on mental health and illness. Many young people struggle alone and do not know how to take care of their mental health because their families do not speak about mental health and illness.

Another reality is that across many rural areas and communities in South Africa, we see a higher rate of suicide and self-harm due to the belief that people with mental illness are “crazy”, “possessed” and “dangerous”, so young people are afraid to speak out and get the help they need.

When we look at the systems’ perspective and management of mental health, we can understand WHY we have these statistics and WHY young people aren’t getting the proper support to prevent and manage mental well-being.

We need to speak up to break the stigma around mental health, we need to empower young people, and we need to give them the practical tools and resources they need to overcome mental health challenges. DM

To find out more about the Wellcome Mental Health Data Prize and how it can help research what works for whom and why in preventing, treating and managing anxiety and depression in young people, see here

If you find any of the content in this piece distressing and need to seek urgent mental health support, please contact your local government mental health provider.


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