As young people go about the challenges of adolescence and adulthood, there are numerous health concerns that can affect their quality of life and well-being. Role players in the health sector have identified a few key areas of health concerns for young people today, including HIV, mental health, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.
Dr Peterson Thipe Mfikoe from Pretoria says in his experience of over 20 years as a medical doctor, HIV, sex, alcohol, and drugs in society are the biggest health concerns for young people.
Living in the moment
“Many young people have inherited a culture of rights without responsibility, which is characterised by YOLO, meaning ‘you only live once’. Since the introduction of social media, cultural and moral values have declined, causing alcohol, sex, drugs, and living in the moment to contribute to the increase of many health concerns witnessed, such as new HIV infections, depression, and post-trauma events, alcohol and drug-induced psychosis.
He adds that there are also minor accidents or injuries sustained during drinking and driving and irregular sleeping cycles.
A lack of innovation and programmes appealing to issues like the effects of drugs, alcohol, and teenage pregnancy also contribute to increased health concerns, according to Mfikoe.
“The youth must challenge the powers that be for information and accessibility on their usual social media platforms. A lot of information and ideas are shared. Education, peer renewal, or role modelling, and effective social media advertising are some steps that can assist the youth in knowing the importance of maintaining their health,” he says.
Mental health struggles are real
Young people also tend to struggle with anxiety and depression, specifically generalised anxiety disorder and social anxiety.
According to Pretoria-based psychologist Thembela Zini, it is due to young people being faced with numerous challenges. From the struggle of accepting the death of a loved one to having challenges in their relationships (romantic and otherwise), bullying (emotional, social, and cyberbullying), low self-esteem, substance abuse, suicidal behaviour, and self-harm.
Zini says factors that lead to poor mental health in young people are:
- Navigating life issues such as becoming an adult;
- The nature and end of relationships;
- Being genetically predisposed to depression and anxiety;
- Unresolved issues with family and friends;
- Feelings of sadness, constant worry about life;
- Academic stress;
- Being exposed to trauma at a young age, and not being able to process those emotions and experiences for what they are
- Living through a traumatic experience, and neglectful or abusive childhood.
Lack of help and education
“There has been an increase in mental health challenges among young people, and my concern is the lack of resilience to overcome these challenges. Young people and their caretakers are also not able to assess when they are struggling to the point of seeking help when it is time; issues and mental illnesses tend to be brushed off as attention-seeking, etc.
“Other emerging concerns among young people are the increased use of drugs recreationally, the use of drugs to manage mental health disorders such as anxiety and alcohol concoctions for depression, and young people struggling with social anxiety to the point that they do not have any friends and/or have strained relationships with family.”
She further defines young people’s difficulty communicating their experiences and emotions to their families as a barrier to them accessing healthcare and maintaining their health. This makes it difficult for them to sometimes let their parents know they are going to use their medical aid to see a therapist, as it may raise the issue of stigma.
“If schools can have access to mental health practitioners who can run psychoeducational workshops, that would be helpful in educating communities.”
Mental health treatment access
“If these mental health practitioners can be accessible to the community healthcare systems already in place, it would assist in the understanding of mental health, treatment, and referral should the need arise. Young people are supported by a number of systems: school, family, and community, and if the education of mental health is in all their support structures, promotion of good mental health will follow,” Zini says.
She also states that psychological interventions such as individual and group psychotherapy have been found to be effective in treating common mental health concerns in young people.
“Maintaining good mental health may seem like a lot of work in the beginning, but as soon as you start, it becomes a part of your life. Seeing a therapist, journaling, maintaining a routine, having boundaries, being assertive, building your esteem, and practising the self-care tips shared in therapy do become part of your life,” she says.
Driven to suicide
Andile Nduli, who is a private social worker from Durban, states that the most common and biggest health concerns in youth from his practice experience are mental and emotional health, specifically parasuicide.
He highlights that among youth aged 10–24, research indicates that although more females attempt suicide, more males succeed due to the more violent nature males select. Girls are more likely to parasuicide (overdose), whereas boys often find access to firearms or hang themselves.
“Young people feel overwhelmed by thoughts of not wanting to live due to unsolvable social problems, and they have developed suicidal thoughts. They do not have someone to talk to; if they do, they feel judged, and they do not have access to mental health professionals. Poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, poor parenting skills, and school or varsity workload also contribute to these health concerns,” he says.
“Youth suicide generally occurs in the context of the youth’s emotional, family, and social environment. Prevention and intervention strategies for youth suicide will need to take these factors into account.
“In South Africa, there are government social workers allocated for each ward,” says Nduli.
Young people have to know these social workers in order to get help. Private social workers, clinical psychologists, general medical practitioners, and psychiatrists are some of the professionals available for consultation with youth who are at risk of suicide.
Events might be the answer
“The youth are interested in events. We need to do educational health programmes in the form of events that young people will enjoy while learning. Youth are also interested in social media, and according to my practice experience, I have noticed that young people get interested in most of the awareness that I post on social media. We must also emphasise support group therapy when working with the youth so that they will be able to learn coping strategies from one another,” he says.
Like the noticeable importance of focusing on physical health, Nduli encourages young people to also focus on their mental health and get professional help, talk to adults they trust, and assist them in developing their own support system, as mental health issues among youth often go unnoticed.
“Support from parents and significant others is particularly important to prevent despair and suicidal ideation. This can be achieved by being in touch with a youth’s emotional state. Just because young people do not show their feelings readily does not mean that they are not concerned about health issues. We need to have empathy with them,” Nduli concludes.
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