Understanding the stigma of childhood mental illness

THIS Youth Day - 16 June - Life Healthcare, one of the country’s leading hospital groups, emphasises the importance of education around childhood and adolescent mental illness in an effort to reduce the stigma and ensure early intervention.

According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental illness. Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by the mid-20s. In addition the National Youth at Risk Survey conducted in South Africa, which focuses on children and adolescents between Grade 8 and Grade 11 highlighted that 24% of the youth surveyed had experienced feelings of depression, hopelessness and sadness while a further 21% had attempted suicide at least once.

Research shows that a lot of youth experience a painful tug-of-war filled with mixed messages and conflicting demands from parents, teachers, coaches, employers, friends and themselves.

Growing up negotiating a path between independence and reliance on others is not always easy. It creates stress, and can create serious depression for young people ill-equipped to cope, communicate and solve problems.

Myths, confusion, and misinformation about mental illnesses cause anxiety, create stereotypes, and promote stigma.

Dr Riyas Fadal, Life Mental Health national manager, stresses that mental illness may present as a learning disorder, however, those with learning disorders do not necessarily have a mental health condition and that this should be further explored.

“A starting point to reduce stigma is with the child and family. When adults accept mental illnesses, it becomes easier for them to talk to others in their immediate social network, neighbourhood and community.

“The knowledge that mental illness is fairly common and affects anyone helps break the barrier of stigma,” says Dr Ismail Moola, child psychiatrist at Life St Joseph at Life Entabeni Hospital.

The most common mental health issues faced by young people in South Africa relate to:

• the use, misuse, or abuse of prescription and non-prescription drugs;

• exposure to various forms of violence and sexual abuse;

• the effects of the HIV epidemic on their parents and families;

• teenage pregnancy; and

• adjustment disorders (related to new situations, divorce change of schools, bereavement etc.)

With this range of external factors impacting mental health, Charlene van Rooyen, social worker at Life Poortview, a Life Healthcare facility offering a dedicated adolescent mental health programme, highlights the importance of a high index of suspicion and early intervention.

Van Rooyen says that a lack of awareness and failure to notice red flags may result in a prolonged and increasingly devastating effect on the child’s progress and development within society.

While children may exhibit signs of mental illness, it’s important that a mental health professional - psychiatrist and clinical psychologist - makes a full assessment before the appropriate measures are put in place to help manage their illness.

“Should the parents, caregiver or teacher identify a need for an assessment they may either visit their general practitioner, who will assess and then refer the adolescent or child to either a psychologist or psychiatrist, depending on the assessment and the behaviour they present with, or the adolescent may visit the psychologist or psychiatrist directly.

“Treatment and intervention may range from medication, admission to hospital or attending out-patient counselling sessions,” says Van Rooyen.

The mental health of parents must also be considered when tackling childhood mental illness.

Unfortunately, families, professionals and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent, and ignore the children in the family.

Providing more attention and support to the children of parents with mental illness is an important consideration when treating the parent.

“Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child toward healthy development, despite the presence of parental psychiatric illness.

The mental health professional can help the family work with the positive elements in the home and the natural strengths of the child.

With treatment, the family can learn ways to lessen the effects of the parent’s mental illness on the child,” says Dr Moola.

Life Healthcare is a leading provider of private psychiatric services in South Africa, offering such services at eight dedicated facilities in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Treatments offered include evidence-based drug therapy, individual psychiatric consultations and psychotherapy, group therapy and, where needed, physical therapy.

Selected Life Mental Health facilities offer an adolescent programme that, with the main focus of creating a structured environment, will aid in the emotional and behavioural containment of the adolescent patient.

- Supplied.

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