/ 19 July 2022

South African youth feel like failures. Here’s how to change that

Youth Month
Photo by Phill Magakoe/AFP

Sandile Tshabalala is no stranger to the devastation that mental health issues can wreak. In the past year alone, the co-founder of Huruma Bantfu, a private company committed to co-creating conditions for human-centred upliftment, has lost a best friend to suicide and witnessed several nervous breakdowns. 

His own experience with mental health problems were triggered by the pressure he felt in the early days of his professional career in corporate South Africa — a space, he believes, is in dire need of psychosocial support for young people.  

The latest United Nations Childrens’ Fund South Africa U-Report poll agrees with him. As many as 65% of young South Africans are facing some kind of mental health issue, the research finds and yet many do not seek help. A quarter of respondents believed their mental health problem was not serious enough to seek help, 20% didn’t know where to get help and 18% were afraid of what people would think of them if they did speak more openly about it. 

Beyond the reality of young people facing these challenges on their own, the lack of diagnosis and adequate support fuels a mental health crisis into adulthood, a study published in the journal, Nature, found. This contributes to social challenges such as post-traumatic disorders, unemployment, workplace burnout, and addiction, which can cycle through to the next generation.

Gaps in treatment and support are making the problem worse. Like many low-to-middle income countries, there is a significant mental health treatment gap in South Africa. About 30% of adults in the country meet diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder over their lifetime, yet less than a quarter ever receive treatment. The latest South African Child Gauge, an annual publication from the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, shows that fewer than one in 10 South African children are receiving the mental health care they need.

Breaking the culture of silence

Former professional cricketer Sven Koenig’s experience with mental health issues made him realise that it can affect anyone, regardless of their background or stage of life. He considers his upbringing relatively privileged. He had a successful career as a professional sportsman, followed by a lucrative job in finance, but during lockdown his mental health suffered severely. “It completely opened my mind as to how dangerous and debilitating it is,” he says.

Koenig and Tshabalala are determined to break through the stigma regarding mental health by speaking out about their experiences and creating more awareness. As Koenig says, the best help came from people who were aware of his experiences and shared their own difficulties. “And those who shared were the most unlikely of people — those one would least expect to be impacted by it.” 

Mirriam Mkhize, a social worker specialising in child and adolescent mental health and well-being, and a PhD candidate at the Alan J Fisher Centre for Public Mental Health, agrees, adding that although social media has made speaking about mental health issues more accessible, there is still a huge portion of people being left out. “People need access to professionals who look like them. Addressing mental health is everyone’s responsibility to continue in communities.” 

A holistic approach driven by research is needed 

Tshabalala says that although the government has recognised the youth mental health problem in the country, there is a huge gap between political promises and effective action. “Our diverse beliefs within a spiritual, religious, and medical context, and our poor understanding — largely due to a lack of information — makes it difficult for our government to adopt a coherent approach to implementing policy,” he believes. 

And this is why it is even more important for a holistic approach to be adopted. Socioeconomic inequalities and mental wellbeing are all deeply interconnected. This means that other actors including universities, civil society, and the private sector all have a significant role to play in supporting the government by ensuring that policy interventions are founded on hard evidence and to help roll out relevant solutions.   

The Nurturing Care Framework, a multisectoral initiative supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the World Bank stresses the importance of the involvement of multiple actors and interventions from strengthening formal services in primary health care and raising awareness in the community to plugging knowledge gaps, reducing stigma, and buttressing parental support with trained caregivers and social workers.

It is in this spirit that the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised centre at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, has stepped up to launch a Mental Well-Being Campaign, which has three objectives: to emphasise the importance of mental health and psychosocial support for young people, share best practices for psychosocial support and explore policy-level interventions required to make the delivery and uptake of youth-focused psychosocial support easier.  

We put a lot of pressure on young people. They’re our hope for the future, and we remind them of this all the time, but if we don’t provide them with sufficient support to bear this weight on their shoulders how will they be able to fulfil this hope? As Thandile Giyama, head of learning at Amathuba, says: “There is this expectation from older generations for young people to have all the tools to improve their personal situation. This puts a lot of pressure on them. They’re afraid to make mistakes and to be themselves. They feel like failures when they don’t succeed.”

We can change this and help youth live their best lives if we recognise the problem and choose to prioritise mental health care in youth development before things get any worse. As Raffi Cavoukian, author, musician and children’s champion, says, “If we change the beginning of the story, we change the whole story.” Let’s rewrite the first chapter to empower the youth to carry our future on their shoulders once again. 

Luvuyo Maseko and Simnikiwe Xanga are part of the Youth Innovation Portfolio at the University of Cape Town’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.