October 10 every year is set aside to commemorate World Mental Health Day. There is a theme selected each year to draw attention to topical issues of public health concern, and this year was no different. The theme for this year’s celebrations is ‘Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World’. We interrogate this theme to identify and situate its relevance to our society.
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Why should we bother about young people’s mental health?
First, the proportion of the world’s population that is young – defined by the United Nations as aged 10 to 24 years old, is rising by the day. In low and middle income countries, the population is largely youthful, and it is estimated for example, that nearly half of Africa’s population is aged 18 years and below. Second, the period of adolescence and young adulthood is characterised by dynamic changes in physical, social, economic as well as emotional domains. They gradually assume more responsibilities and earn more independence and freedom. However, it is also a period that is fraught with uncertainties about their place in the grand scheme of things and the world generally. They may be especially vulnerable and sensitive to rejection and criticism, and be unsure how to navigate the new, exciting but equally scary challenges that confront them. Third, about half of all adult mental disorders would have started by the age of 14 years. So, it is a critical period when most mental disorders which potentially may have life-long consequences, can be picked up early and interventions instituted. If this is done, it should ensure that it does not end up derailing their educational and career pursuits.
What is changing in our world today?
The world is increasingly becoming urbanised, with continuous migration from rural areas to cities. And city life has resulted in less interactions with neighbours and extended family members. Most families now live in walled compounds with minimal or no interactions with their neighbours. Furthermore, parents are now so busy in cities that they are out of the house before daybreak, and often return home exhausted, late at night. Children and young people are therefore, left to their own devices, to seek solace in playing video games – especially as it may not be safe for them to play on the city streets, for fear that they may be harmed.
Whereas, in rural communities, children are free to play on the fields, visit friends, and play around the community, safe in the knowledge that every member of the community will help the parents keep an eye on them, wherever they may be. This assurance does not hold true in the cities. Thus, young people are increasingly isolated with few friends in the cities.
What are the mental health challenges?
The pervasive influence of the internet, and social apps such as facebook, twitter, instagram and the others have replaced real-life interactions for young people. They meet and make new friends online and become close, start dating and sharing information even when they have never met the person behind the online profile they are engaging with.
The constant online presence and time places severe strain on young people to conform, compete for likes, and to want to project a happy and fun life, like everyone else appears to be living such perfect lives. Thus, when things don’t go so well with their lives, it appears like they are the only one in the entire world whose life is not perfect. And they experience utter misery. Or if they don’t get likes for their posts and comments, it feels like they have been rejected and humiliated.
Furthermore, bullying used to be time-bound and limited to school hours or time spent on the streets – all of which they could escape from once they get home. However, with relentless online network these days, cyber bullying can be relentless and round the clock, such that they become terrified of going online to see all the hateful and critical comments from those taunting them. The reasons for the taunts may range from having pimples on their face, to being considered too fat or too thin or whatever else tickles the fancy of the bullies. Some young people have been driven to commit suicide following cyber bullying.
Other challenges include adolescent depression, suicidal behaviours, and drug abuse. The codeine epidemic in the country in recent times, in addition to other dangerous drug combinations making the rounds are also clear dangers to our youth. Lastly, the gale of traumatic events across the country with the Boko Haram insurgency, kidnappings, and communal conflicts also increase the risk of exposed youth developing mental health problems.
In conclusion, the youth of any society is the future, and investing in their emotional well-being, as well as preparing them for the challenges of adulthood is a wise and worthwhile venture.
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