The saying goes that there’s nothing a little ice cream can’t fix. That’s what prompted Soweto mental health advocate Nompumelelo Magezana (26) to fill the mental health education gap for children in primary school. And yes, she literally visits Gauteng schools with an ice cream truck.
Michel’le Donnelly, project leader for advocacy and awareness at the SA Federation for Mental Health, says there are limited youth-friendly mental health care and services in the country. “It is estimated that 10% to 20% of children and adolescents are affected by mental health disorders around the world,” Donnelly says.
That is what makes Magezana’s much-needed efforts so exemplary.
Magezana is stationed at Diodi Primary as a teacher’s assistant, where she learned more about the children and saw how they behave daily.
“This is where I got to engage with the kids on a personal level and I picked up things like the way they behaved which linked to their mental health. And from there I knew they needed my assistance and I had to do something,” Magezana says.
“I spent more time with them to analyse the way each age group behaves. I decided that for my birthday, I will have an ice cream date with them to discuss mental health issues with professionals and testimonials from someone who was a drug addict and is on the process of healing through rehab.”
It starts on the playground
Magezana believes that it is important that there are systems in place that prioritise mental health in schools because this could eliminate having frustrated teachers, and children who are angry and not behaving in schools.
“It is important for kids to [focus on] their mental health earlier so that it doesn’t affect them in their adult life because they would have healed earlier. The feedback that I got at the school after the initiative is that they needed an intervention like this because teachers are frustrated because of the behaviour of the kids. And at times they do not know how to deal with it because it is not every teacher who is sensitive and patient to identify the root of the behaviour.”
Moving forward, Magezana says they plan to hold sessions to help parents and teachers unpack mental health and how to identify triggers in their children or learners.
Bharti Patel, the national executive director of the South African Federation for Mental Health, explains that there is an information gap in South Africa. “We do not have very good data on the various conditions that are experienced by young children, but issues like depression, anxiety disorder, ADHD, autism and eating disorders are some of the prevalent mental health conditions in children and adolescents.”
According to Donnelly, in 2019 the department of basic education gave a status report on processing the recommendations of the two 2019 SA Human Rights Commission Reports (SAHRC) calling for more inclusive education. “To the best of our knowledge there are no nationally endorsed social emotional learning programs, which are used supplement the academic training and equip learners with the tools to talk about their mental health,” says Donnelly.
Why we should prioritise mental health for kids
Donnelly says SAFMH believes that education in schools on mental health is very important.
“By introducing young people to mental health at an early age, demystifying the concept and normalising the conversation about it, we can hopefully make a difference by fostering the development of more positive perceptions about mental health in young people. Thus potentially reduce levels of stigma prevalent in their behaviour as they grow older.”
Many mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, but many cases remain undetected and untreated.
“Social emotional learning programs teach students about self-care. This means learning to identify when you might be feeling mentally not well and what behaviours or actions you can do to minimise this. If we do not teach this to young people, this can lead to larger problems both for the learner for their families, their teachers, and our healthcare system.”
She adds that teaching self-care is a key foundation block for population mental health. “Children spend most of their day at school, so it would make sense to have mental health education and awareness become a vital part of the school curriculum.”
Know your kids’ triggers
Donnelly says the following are triggers parents should look out for:
- Adolescence can be a time of change and uncertainty. During this time it is normal to feel sad, confused, unsure and scared. Mental disorders, in particular affective disorders (like depression), are a strong predictor of suicide behaviour in young people.
- Research shows that before trying to take their own life, a teen may have thoughts of wanting to die. This is called suicidal ideation. Threats of suicide are a cry for help and if a teenager is having suicidal thoughts, it is important that they know that they are not alone and they should reach out to someone they trust and seek the necessary support. “Remember, there is nothing shameful about talking about feeling like you are not coping, needing help, or talking about suicide.”
- We would advise against using the term “committed suicide” as it makes it sound like the person is committing a crime. Suicide is a mental health challenge and not a crime. Other phrases could be “die by suicide” or “attempting suicide” or “completing suicide”.
For those who are suicidal and need help or are unsure how to help someone in need, contact the National Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567. This number is free and offers counselling in all 11 official languages.