Jobless, poverty: SA’s youth need urgent mental health attention

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Promoting mental health and well-being is a key imperative of the Sustainable Development Goals. The goals recognise the growing threat of mental health challenges globally.

For instance, the World Health Organisation reports that depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide with more than 300 million people affected.A compromised state of mental health for the youth and other population groups affects the quality of life.

Evidence shows that numerous factors spark mental health challenges. Some of these factors are socioeconomic in nature, for instance, unemployment.

In raising awareness on mental health and in tackling the associated stigma, whether, through policy or other interventions, stakeholder collaboration is crucial.

The World Health Organisation recognises that joblessness can lead to stress and frustration that negatively affects mental health. Arguably, South African youth confront pressures associated with high unemployment rates and poverty.

The 2017 mid-year population estimates released by Statistics South Africa show that youth (15 to 34 years old) represent just more than 20 million of the population. This is a demographic that can make a positive and meaningful contribution to South Africa’s economy.

However, the high youth unemployment rate – at 63.5% from this year’s first quarter results of the Labour Force Survey – is deeply concerning.

Unemployment remains a challenge, with the metric for 25 to 34-year-olds pegged at 33 % in the first quarter of 2018, slightly less than the 33,4% in the last quarter of 2017.

Tackling known triggers of compromised mental health such as joblessness, for instance among young South Africans, is therefore critical. South Africa’s health department reports that declining mental health is one of the top contributors to the disease burden.

In 2017 the World Health Organisation reported that globally more than 40% of countries had no mental health policy, more than 30% did not have a mental health programme, and an estimated 25% of countries had no mental health legislation.

This shows how mental health issues still require attention. Indeed, raising awareness, as well as eradicating stigma within communities, is crucial to tackling mental health challenges among young people and the general population.

Stakeholders such as the private and public sectors, civil society and other role players need to work in unison to address youth mental health issues as they have serious implications on the country’s economy and productivity.

Youth are potential future employees in various sectors. Employees with mental health problems are more likely to be absent from work and have lower productivity levels.

The World Health Organisation in 2017 reported that depression and anxiety cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion in terms of lost productivity.

Indeed, mental health policies and interventions should take into consideration the different life stages of an individual’s life as a way to integrate both prevention and treatment for mental health issues. Mental health challenges, when robustly addressed earlier in life, will ensure that the youth are healthier individuals as they age.

Indeed, when young people have the necessary support mechanisms to deal with mental health issues, their transition to adulthood is more successful.

The health department confirms that the Mental Health Care Act of 2002 only addresses medication management of severe mental health problems such as schizophrenia but neglects issues such as the detection and treatment of less severe mental problems such as depression.

This has serious mental health implications, for instance for a young woman. The National Mental Health Policy Framework 2013 – 2020 acknowledges the higher susceptibility that young women have to develop depression and anxiety disorders compared to other population groups.

These are realities that interventions need to consider. For example, there is value in implementing a focused policy that addresses mental health for all employees and also considers the greater vulnerability of young women.

A World Health Organisation-led study estimated that every $1 invested in scaled-up treatment for common mental health problems yields a return of $4 in enhanced health and productivity. Investing in treatment and awareness does not necessarily require new infrastructure.

Existing schools, tertiary institutions, hospital and clinics, community-based organisations, and other entities can be conduits for scaling up programming on mental health issues so as to lessen the financial burden on stakeholders.

Through campaigns, communities can learn about mental health and how to support those affected while also addressing stigma.In schools, the life orientation component of the curriculum can be used to equip learners with more knowledge on mental health.

Also, knowledgeable teachers can sensitively deal with mental health issues and refer “at risk” learners to school social workers to offer the necessary support.

Collaborative action in tackling mental health issues among young people is crucial considering the diverse challenges that they may face in a context of high unemployment, poverty and the lack of solid structures to support them.

Addressing stigma is also a crucial component of promoting mental health and wellness. Involving varied role players in mental health prevention and treatment strategies are essential and will ensure that young people can lead healthy and productive lives and contribute to the development of South Africa.


Article by :

• Pheelwane is a research intern and Tamukamoyo is managing director at the Youth Development Institute of South Africa (

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