Statistics on the mental health problems of young people at schools have been increasing globally.
Research shows that there has been a rapid rise in the reported cases of students struggling with anxiety, depression, bullying of all kinds as well as suicidal tendencies and behaviour, including self harm.
There have been several cases recently of celebrities and academics who have committed suicide. The link between suicide and severe depression/anxiety is well documented.
In many South African schools and universities students are battling with emotional and psychological crises and need help. Many have openly shared their stories and this shows enormous courage.
As a mental health professional for the past 20 years, I have dealt with all kinds of mental health issues ranging from anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviour, bipolar disorder, learning difficulties and family problems as well as young people and adults seeking help for the psychological wounds of having been bullied when they were younger.
We are feeling beings and not only thinking beings – our feelings are the foundation of our being-in-the-world.
We make choices based predominantly on our feelings: choices in goals, studies, work, partners, food, clothes, friends; etc.
So to minimise feelings and see it as a hindrance only to be hidden or shut away, is counterproductive as we then experience a sense of going through the world numb and alienated from ourselves and others.
This is even more so the case for boys, who are told that showing feelings indicates they are not a “real man”.
This is a myth and recipe for disaster, because as we know, Freud himself spoke about the return of the repressed; our hidden feelings will make itself known through the body, through reenactments that can often be damaging or even fatal.
The most important thing schools can do is to create a whole school approach, just like with addressing bullying, with the intent of destigmatising mental health issues.
The stigma attached to mental health is, sadly, still very much a deterrent for those suffering from various emotional issues such as anxiety and depression to seek help.
Talking openly about mental health and creating platforms where people can do this, is one way of alleviating suffering. When mental health is perceived as something bad, or indicating weakness, it becomes really difficult to be able to tell others that you are struggling with overwhelming emotions. It indeed is not a sign of a flawed character or weakness, but in fact seeking help indicates courage and inner strength.
In most cases, those who seek help develop inner capacities including resilience for later challenges in life, and there are always challenges for all of us, this is part of the human condition, with both external and internal struggles.
These platforms need to have certain criteria, including confidentiality and respect for those who share their stories and experiences.
It is pointless and counter-productive to open spaces for sharing and people do not feel safe to open up. Certain group ground rules must be established and adhered to by all.
To assist with this, it may be helpful that those conducting or facilitating these processes are registered mental health professionals not belonging to the school.
Schools must also endeavour to create a common humanity with awareness and respect for difference.
The underlying dynamic of this is that individuals need to be able to talk openly and freely about their experiences. Sharing one’s emotional load makes it more bearable and sharing with others who may be experiencing the same or similar problems gives a sense of relief that you are not alone in your struggle.
This identification helps to reduce stigma and realise that one is not crazy or losing your mind. You are human, like all of us, and we all struggle with our emotional and other responses to life’s demands.
We all need to be cognisant of the painful history and political traumas enacted on us and try to connect in spite of our differences and perhaps also because of our differences and to value these.
When we acknowledge that many of us do have privileged lives but so many others do not, our sense of humanity helps us to connect across racial, class, ability, sexuality and other lines.
According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu in this way: “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them.”
If as a young person you feel that you have lost hope, don’t know where to go to and fear being shamed for feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, please reach out to someone you trust, this could be a trusted friend or parent or similar family member. Otherwise try the following:
An anonymous call to LifeLine 0861 322 322 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org; an appointment with a counsellor at your school; or call the Cape Mental Health Society in Observatory on 021 447 9040 or email email@example.com
Contact a mental health professional listed on therapist-directory.co.za or psychotherapy.co.za or findhelp.co.za or therapyroute.co.za
Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.