Mental health is an important part of an individual’s overall health and well-being.
It includes one’s psychological, emotional and behavioral well-being.
It affects how an individual feels, acts, thinks, relates with others and makes choices.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables individuals to cope with stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their community.
The Who states that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. It is not only about managing active conditions but about also being mindful about one’s happiness and wellness. While mental health disorders are common, they vary in severity.
Most people can manage their symptoms and lead a successful life with proper treatment and access to support.
In accordance with the Who report issued on 17 June 2022, a billion people (including 14% of the world’s adolescents) were living with mental disorders in 2019.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health conditions doubled up as many young people were affected with depression and anxiety. According to a report issued by the same WHO on 23 may 2021, a staggering 1 out of 4 persons who seek healthcare in Kenya have a mental health condition.
In fact, there is still a continued rise as many youths and teenagers are reported to die by suicide in different parts of Kenya. At a global level, data confirm that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29-years old persons (Who source).
You might be wondering what is really happening. Why is it that we wake up every morning to sad news that we have lost a friend to suicide?
Young people are finding their identity, navigating social relationships, interpersonal connections and worrying about their future.
This can be so overwhelming especially if one does not have a defined support system. The transition from childhood to teenage and then to adulthood requires lots of attention, reassurance and discussions on these changes, the lack of which predispose them to mental conditions such as depression and anxiety, as others seek solace in drugs and substance abuse which in turn also affects their mental health.
The National Alliance on Mental illness (an organization that aims at supporting Americans affected by mental illness) estimates that almost 1 in every 5 young people experience mental health problems each year.
Everyone is at some risk of developing a mental health condition regardless of age, sex, income or ethnicity. It is beyond an individual’s choice and willpower. Sadly, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental health conditions, with much of it relying on the outdated assumptions. This is one of the factors as to why young people do not seek help, do not express what they feel and talk about their experiences with mental conditions. People with mental health conditions have been labeled as violent, attention seekers, unpredictable and dangerous.
The fact is that mental illnesses do not choose who to affect. Anyone can have a mental condition. People with mental illness are often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. Part of destigmatizing mental health is acknowledging that we all have high and low moments, and it is normal.
What are the risk factors for mental health conditions amongst young people? Operators in the field such as Mental Health America (a non-profit organization) count, among others, the following:
Studies shows that adverse childhood experiences, such as parental separation or divorce, child abuse either physically, emotionally or sexually, loss of a parent or a loved one and parental illness significantly affect the way a child grows and even behavior as they make milestones in life.
Continuous social and economic pressure
Having limited financial means and belonging to a different social class can increase the risk of mental health disorder in an individual. A low socioeconomic status is known to be associated with mental health. People with low economic status are estimated to be two to three times more likely to have a mental disorder than those who have a high socioeconomic status.
Drugs and substance abuse
A disadvantaged environment can expose young people to uncertainties, conflicts and threats, with often inadequate resources to tackle them. In turn, they seek solace in drugs and substances, which eventually might lead to other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression.
The way forward
We are in a world where individualism has sunk deep into people’s hearts. We no longer care about each other, we do not check on our friends to know how they are faring on. Friendship has become a thing of the past, families are distant and everybody else is concerned about themselves. For the young people who still need guidance, love and assurance in almost all aspects of life, this can have a negative impact on their mental health.
We need to create safe spaces, for instance having support groups where young people can talk about their emotions without feeling judged or misunderstood. Young people and the community as a whole need to be psycho-educated on different mental health conditions. Mental health awareness should also be carried out on different platforms to help in reducing stigmatization and, of course, nullify the stereotypes surrounding mental health.
Practicing self-care can improve one’s mental health by increasing the energy levels, managing stress and reducing the risk of illness. Here are some tips shared also by the UK NHS (National Health System);
Regular physical exercise. This can significantly improve one’s mental health:
· Eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated throughout the day;
· Performing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation and journaling;
· Practicing mindfulness and gratitude by identifying things that make you happy;
· Connecting and maintaining meaningful connections and relationships;
· Challenging negative thoughts;
· Aiming for good quality sleep.
Notwithstanding the above, the first step should be to act at a social level in order not to stigmatize the mental disorders so that, as any other health disease, they could be prevented, checked and cured.