Youth Mental Health

Dr Thapelo Motshudi
1 August 2023
6 min read

The significance of spreading awareness about Youth Mental Health Day lies in acknowledging the escalating mental health concerns among young individuals. By promoting open discussions, encouraging early intervention, and empowering youth to seek assistance, we can cultivate a healthier and more resilient generation.

The state of youth mental health is a pressing concern in today’s society. As young people navigate the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood, issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress significantly impact their well-being. Addressing and prioritizing youth mental health is crucial for fostering a healthier and more resilient generation.

What is mental health?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential; can cope with the normal stresses of life; can work productively and fruitfully; and is able to contribute to her or his community. This means that mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. Several conditions are included in this definition, ranging from depression, anxiety, bipolar mood disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, to schizophrenia and numerous other conditions.

About one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, accounting for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group. Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. The consequences of failing to address adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults. According to UNICEF South Africa 65% of young people with mental health related issues did not seek help.

What causes mental illnesses?

Anyone can suffer from mental illness, from small children to the elderly. There are many possible causes, and often multiple factors are responsible. In addition, one person can have more than multiple conditions at the same time. For example, abuse at home or discrimination at school can lead to alcohol or substance abuse, and this might also predispose one to major depression. Some specific psychological and personality factors can make one vulnerable to mental health problems, and genetic factors also play a role. Also, medical conditions like thyroid disease can be the underlying cause of a mental health illness.

What are the symptoms?

Depression among the youth is more common than most people realize. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the ups and downs that are just part of being a teenager and teen depression. Symptoms depend on the type of mental illness one has. Some can be easy to recognize, like schizophrenia and other types of psychosis. However, conditions like depression can be hard to detect for a non-professional, until they have progressed too far down the road. The early stages of depression, for example, or even bereavement, can easily be taken as normal when there is an obvious trigger, and it can be a very long while before people realize the abnormality.

Symptoms can present as either emotional or behavioral changes. Emotional issues might include feelings of sadness, which can include crying spells for no apparent reason; frustration or feelings of anger, even over small matters; feeling hopeless or empty; irritable or annoyed mood; loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities; conflict with family and friends; low self-esteem; extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure and the need for excessive reassurance; and frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide.

Behavioral changes include tiredness and loss of energy; insomnia or sleeping too much; changes in appetite - decreased appetite and weight loss, or increased cravings for food and weight gain; use of alcohol or drugs; agitation or restlessness - for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still; frequent complaints of unexplained body aches and headaches, which may include frequent visits to the school nurse; social isolation; poor school performance or frequent absences from school; less attention to personal hygiene or appearance; self-harm - for example, cutting or burning; making a suicide plan or a suicide attempt.

What are some of the risk factors?

Many factors increase the risk of developing or triggering teen depression, and these include:

  • Having issues that negatively impact self-esteem, such as obesity, peer problems, long-term bullying, or academic problems.
  • Having been the victim or witness of violence, such as physical or sexual abuse.
  • Having other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, a personality disorder, anorexia, or bulimia.
  • Having a learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Having ongoing pain or a chronic physical illness such as cancer, diabetes, or asthma.
  • Having certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly dependent, self-critical, or pessimistic.

What are some of the social issues around mental health?

Several myths surround mental health. For example, people believe psychiatric disorders are not true medical illnesses, like cancer or diabetes, but rather that sufferers are just "crazy”, lazy, or craving attention. Some think that depression results from a personality weakness or character flaw, and that people who are depressed can just snap out of it if they tried hard enough.

Following from these misconceptions is a belief that being treated for a psychiatric disorder means an individual has in some way "failed” or is weak. One other persistent myth is that depression and other illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, do not affect children or adolescents, and that children who suffer from these are spoilt and lack discipline. Occasionally people also ascribe mental illness to supernatural causes, suggesting it is punishment from some or other god. There is simply no evidence to support any of these claims.

How is the diagnosis made?

To be considered a ‘disorder’, a condition must interfere with a person’s daily functioning. We all feel depressed and “under the weather” at one point or the other, however, once this feeling is prolonged and leads to problems at school or in social relationships, then this indicates a ‘disorder’ requiring intervention. Family members, teachers, and friends are critical in the diagnosis and management of these conditions. 

What is the treatment?

A lot of stigma surrounds mental illness. In the past people were ostracized and even sent away to live in isolation, far away from their communities and families, which only served to worsen their conditions because of the lack of social support. This practice continues in many parts of the world even today. Mental disorders generally require a multi-disciplinary approach, and the team includes family members, teachers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. Each condition is treated differently, and there is an array of treatment options, ranging from counseling, to medication, or both.

What are some prevention methods and what to do if worried?

Mental health promotion activities should start at a young age; therefore, children should be provided with a stable environment that is sensitive to health; adequate nutritional needs; protection from threats; opportunities for early learning; and emotional support and positive stimulation. By their very nature, mental illnesses make it hard for the affected person to ask for help, however if you are worried consider sharing you concerns with a close family member, teacher, or friend. One can also contact the wellness official at school or use one of the many available free helplines.

Tips for parents

  • Teach emotions - Teach your child about emotions, what she can do when she has big feelings and model positive behavior.
  • Help with decision-making - Mental health can affect a person's decision-making skills. It's necessary to have a plan for how to work through emotions when they happen. This could be talking with a friend or a trusted adult, listening to music, or performing physical activity like going for a run or a walk.
  • Watch for symptoms – It helps to be aware, and sometimes symptoms like depression and anxiety may manifest themselves in physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, or changes in sleeping or eating habits.
  • Seek professional help - Mental illnesses might not improve on their own, and if left untreated, they can worsen over time and cause serious problems. Talk to your child's primary care provider or a mental health professional if you are concerned.

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