Our Suffering Children
By Russell Pollitt SJ
While political tricksters roam around the country – making empty promises to get votes next month – I wonder how many of them have read the latest UNICEF South Africa U-Report poll? One does not need a UNICEF poll to know that the suffering amongst young people in South Africa is immense. Much of it has been created by the same political tricksters who are now promising us a new heaven and a new earth.
More than 65% of young people in this country stated that they have some mental health issues but do not seek help. A quarter did not think their issue was serious enough for help; 20% did not know when to get help, and 18% were afraid of what others might think should they seek help.
It is interesting to note that 75% of respondents in the research were 24 years old or younger.
The reasons cited for the state of young people’s mental health were increased poverty and a lack of hope in the country’s future. When the same poll was done five years ago, violence was one of the main reasons for anxiety and mental health problems. It has now shifted to poverty and lack of hope. Note too that in a time when everything is blamed on Covid, the poll shows that mental health issues amongst young people existed before the onset of the Covid pandemic. Covid has only exacerbated a problem that already existed. The loss of loved ones, the disruption in education and the inability to see friends have fueled the problem.
Children’s mental state impacts on everything else in their lives, relationships, learning and physical health. Our children, as cliched as this is, are our future. If our political leadership, across the board, really did care about the country, they would give serious attention to the nation’s young people. Making sure that schools are in good shape, that there are functional and competent facilities to help young people psychologically, that there are good sports and recreational facilities as well as parks for our young people, would all go a long way to begin to address this issue.
Instead, our political leaders focus on their motorcades, shining clothing, ways of looting from state coffers (without getting caught!) and eating in fancy restaurants while the nation’s children drown in pit latrines and suffer mentally in silence. Others are sucked into gangs in desperation and so enter a spiral of death. Has one electioneering trickster given serious attention to young people’s mental health and tried to break the stigma attached to mental health issues? Sadly, the Life Esidimeni travesty reminds us that adults with mental health issues are killed in this country – at the hands of those who are now asking us to vote for them. Nobody has been held to account. Why would we bother worrying about children?
The Church has a massive role to play because we live in a political environment where issues like the health of our children will never be taken seriously. It is not politically expedient. Are we, as church, up for the challenge – really listening to young people and their concerns, accompanying them, without simply forcing the catechism down their throats?
If you care about the nation’s children, your children, our future, think very carefully about where you tick the ballot. We are facing an election where the best of the worst seems to be our only choice.