Mental health disorders are the number one leading burden of disease in children and adolescents, affecting 10–20% of them around the world. Examples of mental health disorders include anxiety, depression, substance abuse and eating disorders. Many more children also have milder but significant emotional and behavioural problems. Certain situations can place children at a higher risk, including a family history of mental illness, bullying, big life changes (such as moving to a new school, divorce, financial issues, serious illness or death) facing or witnessing trauma and substance use.
Just a few weeks ago, a Johannesburg boy, aged 15, died by suicide alone in his bedroom after years of struggling to fit in socially and find his place in the world. His tragic death highlights the problem of adolescent depression and anxiety, which is worryingly on the rise both here and abroad.
“Though there are many psycho-social issues associated with suicide, one must remember that this is a disease. It’s an illness. Just like some physical illnesses are hard to treat, so are some psychiatric/psychological illnesses,” said Johannesburg psychologist Sheryl Cohen.
Rabbi Levi Avtzon of Linksfield Shul, who is at the forefront of this discussion, said: “Sadly today, we worship exceptionalism. This is a fundamental flaw, and needs to be urgently addressed. Life is so hard. The pressure to live an exceptional life – to be a chess champion at the age of eight; to be popular; to attain eight distinctions; become a chief executive, is terrifying. We’re scaring kids away from life. The narrative that unless you’re exceptional the world will swallow you up, needs to change.”
“We need to stop using the word ‘success’ in every sentence. Today, we’re seeking exceptionalism and it starts with fear. If my kid isn’t a champion, then I’m failing my kid. No, your kid just needs to be loved, live a life of integrity, be a mensch, and do the best they can based on their individual capabilities.”
Adolescents also have their lives on public display thanks to social media - and they are constantly looking at the social-media version of others’ lives. This increases feelings of anxiety and depression. There are also new apps that show the location of friends and this may also increase feelings of social isolation, as children watch online as their friends get together without them.
Johannesburg psychologist David Abrahamsohn said, “Tragically, more and more teens are acting out on suicidal feelings. Our community certainly isn’t immune from this trend.”
So, what can parents and educators do to help and support children and adolescent’s mental health?
1. Watch out for changes in your child
The unfortunate reality is that too many children and youth don’t get help soon enough and this can lead to devastating outcomes, and also prevent children from succeeding in school, from making friends, or becoming independent from their parents. Children are often also very good at hiding things from their parents, but there are some signs to look out for. All children are different, but if you’re concerned your child may have a problem, look at whether there are changes in the way they think, feel or act. Mental health problems can also lead to physical changes. Ask yourself how your child is doing at home, at school and with friends.
Changes in thinking include: Trouble concentrating, frequent negative thoughts or changes in school performance.
Changes in feelings include: Feelings that seem bigger that the situation, seeming very unhappy, worries, guilty, fearful, irritable, sad, angry or lonely.
Changes in behaviour include: Often wanting to be alone, crying easily, withdrawing, feeling less energetic, trouble relaxing, sleeping or getting along with friends.
Physical changes include: Headaches, tummy aches or general aches and pains, sleeping or eating problems or nervous habits such as nail biting, hair twisting or thumb sucking.
2. Keep the lines of communication open
Express your concern, support, and love on a constant basis. If your child or teen confides in you, show that you take those concerns seriously and don’t minimise or ignore what they are going through as this can increase their sense of hopelessness. Children need to feel that their parents are available even while they’re developing a sense of independence and don’t be afraid to use big words such as ‘suicide’. Ask your teen about their feelings and listen without being dismissive or judgemental. Always reassure them of your unconditional love, and remind them that whatever they are going through, you’re there to help.
3. Monitor social media use
While it’s important to respect your child’s privacy, it is equally important to monitor their social media use. “Social media is the teen platform for communication, so it certainly cannot be banned, however it can also expose teens to bullying, rumour spreading, unrealistic views of people’s lives, and peer pressure. If your teen is feeling hurt or upset because of messages or posts, encourage them to speak to a trusted teacher or school counsellor.” says Dr Sheri Hanson, Mental Health Coordinator at Hatzolah.
4. Reach out for external support
Recognising when your child needs help is a crucial skill to have as a parent. There may be times when it can be overwhelming or frustrating to try to handle your child’s behaviours. There are people who can assist and support you, including teachers, coaches, and other teens. Your child can also speak to a relative, therapist, or school counsellor. Raising a mentally healthy child can often mean getting the help and support of a team.