The incidence of mental illness amongst children and adolescents is on the increase. Yet, the majority of children don’t receive treatment, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group.
The most common mental health problems among children and adolescents include depression, anxiety disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and substance abuse. The suicide rate amongst adolescents is also disturbingly high.
Unfortunately, mental illness is often regarded as behavioural problems. And as illnesses such as depression often present differently in children, it is easily misdiagnosed. Many children are therefore not referred to the appropriate health care professionals and the problem remains untreated.
Stigma surrounding mental illness
SADAG has found that even when parents suspect a mental health problem, they often do not take sufficient steps to address the problem. Parents fear that they or their child will be stigmatised and discriminated against, and often don’t want to admit that their child has a mental illness, felt SADAG. Parents need to be educated and informed that mental illness is just like any other illness and that it can be treated successfully.
Who is at risk?
The following factors can make children vulnerable to developing mental illness:
- Childhood illness
- Loss of a parent
- Hormonal changes during puberty and adolescence
The high incidence of violence and the history of political violence in South Africa also puts people at risk.
What to do
- Promote awareness of children’s mental health issues and reduce stigma through public education efforts.
- Train teachers and medical professionals to identify mental illness.
- Remember that mentally ill people, both children and adults, cannot simply “snap out of it”. They need help, either in the form of therapy, medication or both.
- Recognise that serious behavioural problems are never a normal part of childhood or adolescence.
- Parents should consult a doctor or mental health professional if they are concerned about their child’s behaviour.
- Keep an eye on your own emotions. Parents need to ask themselves whether shame, stigma or guilt is preventing them from seeking help.
(South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group, Health24)
Contact SADAG: 0800 21 22 23 (toll-free number)