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Understanding the stigma of childhood mental Illness to drive awareness

Life Healthcare, one of South Africa’s leading hospital groups, values the importance of education around childhood and adolescent mental illness in reducing stigma and ensuring early intervention.

According to the World Health Organisation, 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental illness. Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and three-quarters by the individual’s mid-20s. In addition, the National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey, conducted in South Africa and focused on children and adolescents between grades 8 and 11, highlighted that 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 can lead to serious depression in young people who are ill-equipped to cope, communicate and solve problems. Myths, confusion and misinformation about mental illnesses cause anxiety, create stereotypes and promote stigma. Dr Riyas Fadal, National Manager of Life Mental Health, stresses that mental illness may present as a learning disorder; however, persons with learning disorders do not necessarily have a mental health condition, and this should be further explored.

‘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,’ says Dr Ismail Moola, Child Psychiatrist at Life St Joseph’s based at Life Entabeni Hospital.

The most common mental health issues faced by young people in South Africa relate to:

  • The use, misuse or abuse of prescription and non-prescription drugs
  • Exposure to various forms of violence and sexual abuse
  • The effects of the HIV epidemic on their parents and families
  • Teenage pregnancies
  • Adjustment disorders (related to new situations, divorce, change of schools, bereavement, etc.)

With this range of external factors having an impact in mental health, Charlene van Rooyen, Social Worker at Life Poortview, a Life Healthcare facility offering a dedicated adolescent mental health programme, highlights the importance of a high index of suspicion and early intervention. Charlene further states that 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 (psychiatrist or clinical psychologist) 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 can 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 can visit the psychologist or psychiatrist directly. Treatment and intervention may range from medication to admission to hospital or attending outpatient counselling sessions,’ explains Van Rooyen.

The mental health of parents must also be considered when tackling childhood mental illness. Unfortunately, families, professionals and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent, and ignore the children in the family. Providing more attention and support to the children of parents with mental illness is an important consideration when treating the parent.

‘Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child towards 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 parents’ mental illness on the child,’ says Dr Moola.

Life Healthcare is a leading provider of private psychiatric services in South Africa, currently offering such services at eight dedicated facilities in four provinces: Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. Treatments offered include evidence-based drug therapy, individual psychiatric consultations and psychotherapy, group therapy and, where needed, physical therapy. Selected* Life Mental Health facilities offer an adolescent programme, with the main focus of creating a structured environment that will aid in the emotional and behavioural containment of the adolescent patient.

Life Mental Health units: Eastern Cape: Life Hunterscraig Private Hospital (Port Elizabeth), Life St Mark’s Clinic (East London); Gauteng: Life Glynnview (Benoni), Life Poortview* (Roodepoort), Life Riverfield Lodge (Nietgedacht), Life Carstenview (Midrand); Western Cape: Life St Vincent’s (Pinelands); KZN: Life St Joseph’s* (Durban).