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Wellness Wednesday: Talk to your child about mental health

The pressures facing today’s generation of adolescents and young adults are taking a toll on their mental health, increasing the risk of drug addiction and suicide

“Even in the best of circumstances, adolescence and the transition from childhood to adulthood is a vulnerable phase of development,” says Dr Kavendren Odayar, a psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Gqeberha, ahead of Teen Suicide Prevention Week.

“For any young person, it can be difficult to adjust to the rapid physical and emotional changes during this time – even without a mental health disorder in the picture. Parents, teachers, and caregivers should therefore be alert to signs that could suggest adolescents or teenagers are struggling,” Dr Odayar says.

“Many of us may remember how the challenges we faced at school and shifts in understanding of individual identity impacted our emotional state. On top of this, the current generation of young people still bears the mental health scars of the Covid-19 lockdown.

“In the past five years, data suggests that adolescent mental health has been deteriorating worldwide with high rates of depression, anxiety, and trauma-related outcomes including substance abuse.”

The prolonged period of social isolation and social distancing during the pandemic could have disrupted certain aspects of the critical development that takes place during adolescence. “This isolation goes against the social nature of human beings, and many teenagers are still living with the consequences of mental disorders that developed or escalated during lockdown,” he says.

“Temptation to experiment with drugs in the context of this mental health pandemic is more likely to be amplified, potentially leading to full-blown substance use disorders as there is known to be a relationship between addiction and other types of mental health disorders.”

Dr Odayar says many families prefer not to think about teenagers or adolescents taking their own lives and may not realise the full implications of changes in behaviour that could indicate mental health concerns.

“This is significant, as adolescent suicide is most frequently due to mental illness, and suicide has been documented as the second largest contributor to adolescent mortality.”

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Young people experiencing anxiety, depression, or other ‘unseen’ emotional or psychiatric issues may find it hard to put what they are going through into words or might feel a sense of shame about speaking up about it to their parents, other adults or even their peers.

“To this day, there is still unfortunately sometimes a stigma attached to mental health, and this can result in young people feeling distressed and not seeking help. Given the high incidence of suicide in this age group, I would urge families to check in with the younger generation and ask them about how they are coping in a supportive, sensitive way.

“In the fast pace of day-to-day life, it is all too easy to lose touch with young people – even if they are living under the same roof. Early detection is key to preventing suicide. Parents, please talk to your children and take notice of them – no matter how busy you may be,” he says.

Social withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and acting out in ways that seem out of character can indicate potential cause for concern, as mental illness is picked up by those closest to them who notice changes in the person’s behaviour.

“These warning signs suggest the need to seek professional help. A young person talking about death or suicide is even more urgent and should never be ignored, dismissed, or punished.

“While there are not always noticeable signs of a young person’s suicidal intention, as a society, we need more awareness and less stigma to help adolescents and teenagers find mental health support to help prevent such tragedies wherever possible,” Dr Odayar says.

In any mental health emergency, or for advice in accessing mental health care for yourself or a loved one, reach for support. Netcare Akeso offers a 24-hour crisis line on 0861 435 787. Trained counsellors are available to talk to without judgement and can guide you on the various options for assistance. The South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) also provides a 24-hour suicide crisis helpline on 0800 567 567.

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