The month of June marks youth month in South Africa. 2020’s activities, officially celebrated under the theme ‘Youth Power: Growing South Africa together in the Period of COVID-19’ (SA News, 2020) coincide with the COVID-19 global pandemic, which experts warn will have sweeping mental health challenges across populations (United Nations, 2020). Mental health is a state of well-being in which individuals realise their “own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and are able to make a contribution” to their community (World Health Organization, 2018).
Mental health challenges are prevalent among young people, but negative perceptions about mental health often lead to stigma and discrimination, preventing them from seeking help. It is estimated that half of all mental health conditions develop by the age of 14, with three-quarters of the population developing these in their mid-20s (Return on the Individual [ROI], 2020). In severe cases, mental illness can lead to suicide, and tragically suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15-29 years (ROI, 2020).
According to the United Nations (2014) mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders and disruptive behavioural disorders have a significant impact on the development of over a billion youth across the globe. Like everywhere else in the world, South African youth are disproportionally affected by challenges such as high unemployment and poverty. According to Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA) data from 2019, youth aged 15-24 are the most vulnerable to unemployment. Stats SA (2019) further notes that the burden of unemployment in the country is concentrated amongst youth aged from 15 to 34 years, making this group the highest number of people facing unemployment in the country. It is expected that unemployment as a result of COVID-19 will further increase and continue to pose a threat to the livelihoods of many youths who stand to lose their means of earning an income.
As we mark the 44th anniversary of Youth Day, which is celebrated annually in South Africa on the 16th of June, we are reminded of the need to invest more in the mental health of young people – both those who are already predisposed to mental health challenges and as a preventative measure to ensure good mental wellbeing in all young people. The day commemorates the 1976 Soweto uprising that saw young people from schools across the township take a stand against the Bantu Education Department system during the apartheid era by demanding the equal right to education (Government ZA, 2016). More than 20 000 pupils took part in the protests that spread across the country challenging the status quo pertaining to the quality of education under the Bantu Education Act. More than four decades later in a democratic dispensation, young people in South Africa still face challenges regarding social and economic integration as well as employability. These challenges are among the most important determinants of mental illness (WHO, 2018) which in South Africa’s case are systemic with most public schools poorly resourced with lack of sanitation and proper infrastructure and still having different levels of education varying among the provinces. While these social and economic stressors were prevalent before the current pandemic, COVID-19 has once again reminded us of the urgent need to invest in the mental well-being of the population, especially the youth. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2020), prior to COVID-19, youth aged 15 to 24 were already three times more likely to be unemployed compared to adults with “more young people stuck in precarious employment than any other age groups”. The pandemic has left young people particularly vulnerable to the disruptions experienced by countries around the world as many face the risk of being left behind in education, economic opportunities, and health and wellbeing during a crucial stage of their development (UN, 2020). This is happening at a time when public health resources have been directed towards prioritising physical health, which might result in other health services such as mental health becoming scarcer in the foreseeable future. These challenges outline why the SA Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) wishes to encourage youth to utilise self-help tools available to look after their mental health during this time. These tools include the youth-focused information developed by the organisation, available at www.my-mh.org which provides young people with a repository of fact sheets, infographics and news items surrounding mental health, tailored specifically to the needs of young people.
During the duration of the national state of disaster, SAFHM has been sharing advice on how people can manage their mental health during the pandemic. As part of this, SAFMH has also partnered with Honoris United Universities to develop a digital booklet that aims to provide all people (including the youth) with tools they can use to help them deal with the lockdown in the best ways possible. The booklet can be downloaded from the SAFMH website ( www.safmh.org ).
Government ZA. (2016). Youth Day. Accessed at: https://www.gov.za/youth-day
International Labour Organization. (2020). Youth hit hard by the COVID 19’s economic fallout. Accessed at: https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/multimedia/video/institutional-videos/WCMS_741948/lang–en/index.htm
Return on the Individual Report. (2020). Time to Invest In Mental Health. Accessed at: https://www.gospeakyourmind.org/return-on-the-individual-report
SA News. (2020). Youth Month full of opportunities. Accessed at: https://www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/youth-month-full-opportunities
Stats SA. (2019). Youth graduate unemployment rate increases in Q1: 2019. Accessed at: http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=12121
United Nations. (2020). Protecting and mobilizing youth in COVID-19 responses. Accessed at: https://www.un.org/development/desa/youth/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2020/05/PB_67.pdf
United Nations. (2014). Mental Health Matter: Social Inclusion of Youth with Mental Health Condition Accessed at: https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/documents/youth/youth-mental-health.pdf
World Health Organization. (2018). Mental health: strengthening our response. Accessed at: https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
(Project Leader – Info & Awareness, SAFMH)
Tel: 011 781 1852
Please note that, until further notice, SAFMH will only be available for phone interviews and email enquiries