Finding mental health resilience for township youths

By The Space Between US
We need to normalise mental health and wellness in townships. Through this we can shine a light on the power of hope and community.

You can always count on Archbishop Desmond Tutu to find the words to inspire a nation. Perhaps his words can inspire us now to normalise mental health and wellness among the youth that so desperately need it:

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

Our youth are staring down a tide of mental health problems through unemployment, drug abuse and gender-based violence in townships. Clinical psychologist Thobile Dlamini works to turn this tide on suicide, depression, and other mental health illnesses amid the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Shining a light on the power of hope and community, The Space Between Us sat down with Dlamini to find out what she has seen in her work in Soweto and what she sees as the solution.

What do the numbers tell us?
Unemployment batters the 15-34 age group with an unemployment rate of 46.3%, astounding figures when you consider that well over 20 million people fall into this bracket. Consider it, nearly 9 million young people trapped in a situation not of their making and yet shouldering the consequences. In the absence of work, millions must rely on social grants that are often the only means of support for multiple members of a single family.

It’s little wonder then that mental health concerns have become a grave concern for Dlamini who works at the Bheki Mlangeni Hospital in Soweto. She points out that over the last two years she has seen a spike in mental illness.

But why? Is it just unemployment or are there underlying symptoms robbing our youth of hope? Dlamini posits four main threats heaping pressure on already overloaded shoulders:

Land of (non)opportunity
On Youth Day, the presidency launched the to create learnership and other work opportunities. But, Dlamini says, these portals aren’t effective. “A lot of young people are in the system and go to school and tertiary institutions and then find themselves sitting at home with their qualifications without even the opportunity of employment.”

Born free?
“The one thing that most parents don’t understand is that jobs are not out there like it used to be. The minute they see you at home, it is perceived that you are lazy. Then the family begins shouting at you,” Dlamini says. This is because many young people from disadvantaged communities are considered the breadwinners of their family.

Of course, the problem is more nuanced than that. We have long boasted about the “born free” generation and raised our children to be confident, proud and to challenge the status quo. Dlamini nurses a blazing hope for these youths. “The current generation speak their minds. They ask questions. If they see something is wrong, they won’t just agree. This generation is being interpreted in communities as a person that doesn’t want to follow cultural or religious ways. They’re just a ‘loose cannon’. This generation is misunderstood. We have a new breed of generation – they are free.”

Plunged into darkness
Lockdown has revolutionised education – desks are swapped for screens and bandwidth is the currency of connection. What about accessibility shortfalls in areas like Soweto?

This revolution left desperate teenagers scrambling for resources that were never there to begin with. Plunged into vacuous periods of loadshedding with no end in sight, the toll presented itself starkly in November when many students learned that they had failed the school year, plunging them into depression.

Then there is the lure of illicit drugs. While alcohol has always had a big influence on mental health the rise of hard drugs, especially crystal meth has been devastating for Dlamini to watch. “It’s heart-breaking when you talk to a young person who proudly says, ‘I’ve graduated from dagga to crystal meth.’ This has become their lifestyle.”

Coupled with this is the rise in online gambling. Desperate people make desperate choices.

Mapping the way for hope
These setbacks aren’t the end of hope. In fact, this is where hope begins.

Unburdening ourselves by speaking openly and listening without judgment we can make mental health part of our conversations and lifestyles for the benefit of all. To build a future founded on unity, compassion, and respect, Dlamini shares this advice:

To parents and caregivers:
  • You are raising a new generation and their challenges are not the same as the past. Give them space and trust.
  • Don’t allow a young person to close themselves off in their room after school. These children need emotional attachment and without it they’re going to have a lot of psychological problems.
  • Give your children time to find work. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your kids are lazy because they are doing the best they can.

To teenagers and young adults:

  • Take one day at a time and never give up on doing what you believe in. If you see others suffering, approach them and offer your support.
  • If we stand up and talk openly about illnesses like HIV then speaking about mental health will help others, too.
    If you start feeling suicidal, there are toll free numbers (listed below).
  • Talk to your families. What closes you in a corner, is feeling alone and that loneliness is what is heavy.
Depression, self-harm and suicide
Suicide hotline 0800 567 567
24hr Helpline 0800 12 13 14
SADAG toll-free line 0800 456 789

Drug, alcohol and gambling addiction
Narcotics Anonymous 086 100 6962
SANCA 011 892 3829

Gender-based violence and child abuse
Gender-Based Violence Command Centre 0800 428 428
Childline 0800 055 555
Lifeline 0861 322 322

Solutions for young professionals
This situation isn’t limited to the unemployed. Those that do have work face similar anxieties in building careers in the face of massive expectation and constant pressure. But there are better ways to close the book on insecurities, to build a more confident you, to effect positive change in yourself and others.

The Space Between Us Young Professional Programme builds skills that will enable young professionals to thrive in their life and career. It develops a sense of self, self-esteem and boundaries as key psychological tools used to build healthy relationships with themselves and others.

There is help but we need to break the stigma around mental health. If so many people are struggling with similar challenges, then why aren’t we reaching out or sharing our stories to show others that they aren’t alone? If your story helps just one person, isn’t it worth the leap of faith?

Do you have a story to share to help others? Send us your stories and connect with TSBU on LinkedIn and Instagram for more advice and tips on mental health and wellness.