Updated 18 February 2015

Why Soweto school children want to give up on life

A small study has found that primary school children in Soweto who experienced multiple forms of violent attacks wanted to give up on life.


A pilot study of primary school children in Soweto has revealed shocking results. It found that 39 out of 160 school children in the study had wanted to give up on life.

"The results suggest a whole series of tragedies waiting to unfold," said project leader Gerald Williamson.

The research asked a series of socio-economic questions aimed to identify barriers to learning.

The monster that is 'violence'

The study identified issues relating to unemployment, health and nutrition, however matters involving violence stood out the most.

It found that many children witnessed more than one form of attack. An analysis of the results showed that:

- 19 have seen somebody shot,
- 10 had witnessed somebody being burned and
- 31 had seen somebody attacked with a knife,

"You see stories in the newspaper. You hear anecdotes. But when you see that 19 kids out of 160, that's more than one in eight, have seen somebody being shot, it focuses the mind," said Dr Ian Smythe, the UK-based psychologist who was part of the team.

A call for action

"What politician, what civic leader would not want to bring together the community to solve this problem together?", he asked.

Professor Jace Pillay, who is leading the research programme for this project, said "With this work, we have changed the paradigm; we have removed the barriers that have prevented our next generation from being supported. This is no longer about basic rights; this is about making a real difference, today."

The research team, comprising the University of Johannesburg, Shaping the Learner and UK based Do-IT Profiler, is now hoping that the results will provide an impetus to release funding to do a wider survey in April, in addition to providing support.

Times of distress

The 2013/2014 crime statistics showed that South Africa is less safe than it was two years ago, with murders, house robberies and hijackings on the increase.

Children who have had traumatic experiences may display several difficulties, including having nightmares.

Primary school-aged children (ages six to 11) may get parts of the traumatic experience confused or out of order when recalling the memory. They may complain of body symptoms that have no medical cause such as stomach aches and they may startle easily.

Adolescents (ages 12 to 18) may experience visual, auditory, or bodily flashbacks of the events, have unwanted distressing thoughts or images of the events, demonstrate impulsive and aggressive behaviours, or use alcohol or drugs to try to feel better. They may feel depressed or have suicidal thoughts.

What can adults do to help?

- Let the child know it is normal to feel upset when something bad or scary happens
- Encourage the child to express feelings and thoughts, without making judgments
- Protect the child or adolescent from further exposure to traumatic events, as much as possible
- Return to normal routines as much as possible
- As the child's most important routine, school can be a major healing environment. Educate school personnel about the child's needs. Reassure the child that it was not his or her fault and that adults will try to take care of him or her.
- Allow the child to feel sad and/or cry
- Give the child a sense of control and choice by offering reasonable options about daily activities like choosing meals, clothes, etc.
- If the child regresses or starts to do things he or she did when younger, adults can help by being supportive, remembering that it is a common response to trauma, and not criticising the behaviour.

When to seek help

Some children may require more help. In this situation, parents can turn to mental health professionals who are trained in helping children with traumatic responses or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Also read:

How to make kids crime-conscious
One in five men reports violence toward partner
Need for earlier recognition and treatment of ADHD


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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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