This Youth Day (16 June), Life Healthcare is focusing on the importance of education around childhood and adolescent mental illness in an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and to ensure early intervention.

According to the National Youth at Risk Survey conducted in South Africa, which focuses on children and adolescents between grade 8 and 11, 24% of the youth surveyed had experienced feelings of depression, hopelessness and sadness while a further 21% had attempted suicide at least once.

Research shows that a lot of youth experience a painful tug-of- war filled with mixed messages and conflicting demands from parents, teachers, coaches, employers, friends and themselves. Growing up negotiating a path between independence and reliance on others is not always easy. It creates stress, and it can create serious depression for young people ill-equipped to cope, communicate and solve problems.

According to Life Healthcare, myths, confusion and misinformation about mental illnesses cause anxiety, create stereotypes and promote stigma.

“A starting point to reduce stigma is with the child and family. When adults accept mental illnesses, it becomes easier for them to talk to others in their immediate social network, neighbourhood and community. The knowledge that mental illness is fairly common and affects anyone helps break the barrier of stigma,” said Child Psychiatrist at Life St Joseph’s, Dr Ismail Moola.

With this range of external factors impacting mental health, Social Worker at Life Poortview, Charlene van Rooyen, says a lack of awareness and failure to notice red flags may result in a prolonged and increasingly devastating effect on the child’s progress and development within society.

While children may exhibit signs of mental illness, it’s important that a mental health professional makes a full assessment before the appropriate measures are put in place to help manage their illness.

“Should the parents, caregiver or teacher identify a need for an assessment they may either visit their general practitioner who will assess and then refer the adolescent or child to either a psychologist or psychiatrist, depending on the assessment and the behaviour they present with, or the adolescent may visit the psychologist or psychiatrist directly. Treatment and intervention may range from medication, admission to hospital or attending out-patient counselling sessions,” said van Rooyen.

“Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child toward healthy development, despite the presence of parental psychiatric illness. The mental health professional can help the family work with the positive elements in the home and the natural strengths of the child. With treatment, the family can learn ways to lessen the effects of the parent’s mental illness on the child,” concluded Dr Moola.

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