By young Ryan Baraka Mariga Okemwa
My name is Ryan, and I would like to talk about my experience with mental health. Mental health matters at every age and often the impact it has on young people is often underestimated.
It is important to ensure that it is dealt with appropriately from as early as possible to ensure children and young adults get the right support required to enable them to build important life skills and thrive in their adulthood.
Drawing on my own experiences and those of close peers, I would like to address this by talking about a few issues that have affected me or my peers directly.
Young people face some of the biggest challenges, more so in the last couple of years as we are transitioning into adulthood. Through this journey, it is often young people with mental health problems that face the biggest obstacles.
However, before we dig deeper into this, let us start by clarifying what is classed as “mental health”. According to MentalHealth.Org, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
There are many factors that contribute to our mental health. However, I would like to address these in a bit more detail.
- Cultural Stigma – The ethnicity of a person is their race, whereas the culture is the norms and values in which they identify, and these can sometimes affect mental health as they create an immense feeling of wanting to belong. Both of my parents are from Kenya and have the culture and traditions that they are trying to raise us with.
With my parents’ family, e.g., my uncles, and aunties, I find that it is difficult for my parents and them to discuss matters concerning mental health or issues they are experiencing and there is this perception that you can’t really talk about it.
You are just supposed to get on with the issue and basically suffer in silence. There is an unspoken rule of not burdening others with your issues and whatever issue you are facing is a “me issue.”
- Religion Stigma – The role of religion and simply “praying the issue away” is very common in African households. Whenever you try and talk about something, you are simply bombarded with bible scriptures and told to pray over the situation and that Is it. It is never to be mentioned again. Although faith is essential and praying over situations is vital, it is also important for us to learn to listen and be able to talk about various issues that are affecting us.
Another aspect of religion and mental health is how we can fit in as say Christians with our religious beliefs with people who are not religious and oppose our beliefs. Sometimes, friends can find you weird when you raise your beliefs to them, and you end up feeling a bit like an outcast. Sometimes, we feel we need to water down our beliefs to fit in.
Mental health is seen as a weakness and associated with negativity. Men for example are supposed to be these strong pillars and heads of their households, therefore, discussing anything about a struggle or an issue they are facing is unheard of.
They simply suffer in silence for fear of appearing weak and feeling vulnerable in front of others.
I have experienced this when I have tried to speak to an uncle about a challenge I was facing and the first thing he said to me was, “you have to be a man now. You are no longer a child.” What does that even mean? It immediately made me feel like
I can’t talk about things and a man should just silence his feelings and not share his inner thoughts.
- School-related stigma – I have a friend whom you could clearly see was having some issue in school and would often be rude and aggressive to a teacher and just seemed down and angry most of the time. One day, a teacher was probing my friend and they simply got up and walked out of the class and some of the other classmates started being rude and making odd comments. When I approached my friend later, he just broke down in tears and declined to speak to me. I just advised him of the services and support available to him within the school to help him deal with any issue he is facing.
- Also in school, the main struggle is a lack of belonging. There is not much to do in the community. I do attend a Christian youth club that meets once a month where we discuss growing up as a Christian in our communities. However, this is not enough. I feel this is also a common problem. People lack awareness of where to go and who to speak to, to reach out and get the help they need to deal with their problems.
- Social media – bullying and the negativity that comes with social media. More needs to be done to protect children on social media and awareness of the dangers.
What can be done to help?
- More should be taught about what good mental health looks like. More education about it in schools, youth clubs, and within community groups. So much is said about bad mental health, but how much is said about good mental health?
- Sometimes, children even fear talking to teachers or GPs, because they fear they will tell the parents and then the parents will be upset with the child for “exposing” the issues and “embarrassing” the family. The reputation and image of the family is also very important in most African families. Therefore, most children don’t talk as they have been made to feel this way.
- Rather than signposting children to services, I feel there should be better collaborations within the organizations. The organizations should stay updated with each other. There are always changes being made to services and sometimes, the sign posters may not be aware of the changes that have been made to services and would then give the wrong advice to someone. This, in turn, may put that person who needs help off as they would feel they are being taken round in circles with no actual help being provided.
- More diversity with the service providers.
- More resources are to be made available. For instance, less waiting times to get the help needed
- Lack of engagement due to lack of understanding of mental health. Again, this means, more awareness and education on mental health to be provided.
- This has been mentioned by a previous speaker, but I think parents and mentors should encourage children to speak to them. Allow them to feel comfortable talking to them without judgment and being dismissed.
I hope this has been useful in providing some insight into the issues that are affecting young people’s mental health that might not be spoken about as frequently as they should. The priority should be having these discussions more often and ensuring good mental health is encouraged as early as possible.