According to the World Health Organization, “nearly 700 000 people die by suicide every year. That’s an average of one person every 40 seconds. Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year-olds globally and in South Africa, 9% of all teenage deaths are due to suicide and the numbers are increasing.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdowns have sharply focused attention on the mental health and wellbeing of young children and teenagers. However, the lockdowns simply shone a spotlight on issues too often ignored or relegated to the side lines. These issues have been impacted by daily stresses which have been exacerbated by isolation, being away from friends, and bullying amongst many others.
Nkazimulo Zitha, Head of School Achievement says, at SPARK Schools “we constantly aim to create a community of well-informed and mentally healthy scholars who embody SPARK’s core values, are aware of wellbeing challenges and are able to communicate them. It starts by being well-informed and willing to have open conversations.”
SPARK Schools has contracted The Care Junction, a therapy and educational support services company that often visits the various networks to help navigate mental wellbeing conversations with its scholars. The aim is to create a safe space for scholars who may want to discuss personal issues ranging from bullying, trauma, anxiety, or any issues affecting their mental health. “Lockable ‘safe space boxes’ have also been created for those scholars who would like to write their concerns, questions, or requests for support so that they can be counselled as necessary. Scholars are also able to email Care Junction’s mailbox to report or share any wellbeing challenges,” adds Zitha.
Warning signs that your child may have mental health issues:
Children and adults alike have bad days, but there are signs that your child’s bad day may be more than just a mood. Experts agree that some clear signals should alert parents that everything is not going well with their children.
- Prolonged unhappiness
- An inexplicable drop in school marks and an unwillingness to go to school
- Changes in social habits which include withdrawing from friends and activities your child liked
- Struggling with concentration
- Struggling to sleep and do not want to eat
As a society, we need to ask tough questions like, how mentally healthy are our children and how do we make sure they have all the tools to cope with mental health issues?
Parents and schools can play an important part in assisting our children to understand their mental health journey, but too often the behaviour of young people is seen as “weird” or “antisocial”, rather than delving into the causes of those behaviours.
Most parents know that attempting a conversation with a teenager is not easy and results mostly in grunts and one-word answers. Teenagers are like that, but if you think your child is in mental distress, talk to them to see if anything has happened at school.
“If bullying is involved, do not take the law into your own hands, or tell your child to retaliate. Schools have procedures in place for these issues, use the correct channels and processes that have been communicated to you by the school. Make sure your child knows you are on their side – you are the safest adult protection they have.”
More than 22% of children between the ages of 13 and 18 will experience mental health issues. Getting conversations started about this topic is never going to be easy, but so necessary.
Here are some useful guidelines from Zitha for parents on how to have a productive conversation about mental health with your child:
- Be genuine, teenagers know it when someone is feigning interest. Also, be honest about your comfort in having such a discussion. A practical application of this discussion could be: “This is hard for me to talk about, and I understand that it’s just as hard for you to talk about.”
- Don’t talk down to your teenager, and don’t try and use the language or slang they use – this could come across as disingenuous. Communicate in a way you’re comfortable with, like you usually do.
- Don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Let your child think through their thoughts and responses without pressure or judgement.
- Choose carefully where you have your conversation. A chat, while you are busy with something else, is not going to work. Your venue should be a safe space for you and your child, and one where your child has your undivided attention. Make eye contact and make sure they know you are listening.
- What seems trivial to you, may be a massive issue for your child. Their experiences or emotions are not less valid because they are young.
The more normal we make these conversations, the easier they will get and the more support your child will feel.
Where to get help:
Talk to the teachers at school to see if your fears are founded.
Talk to your GP about your child’s mental health issues, your GP can easily make a referral to a mental health specialist.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) is a free and accessible resource. Contact them on 011 234 4837 or use their 24-hour helpline 0800 456 789