Africa: Use Teachers To Help Africa's Young People With Their Mental Health

Representation matters. Mental health advocate Dr Maymunah Kadiri (file photo).
11 May 2021
guest column

Even before the pandemic, one in five African teenagers had thought about suicide, according to a study released last year. And this was the highest such prevalence in the world. A separate study from 2019 reported that 12 % - one in ten - Nigerian adolescent s had attempted to kill themselves.

Teenage years are critical formative years in the life of any human being. It is a fundamental phase for developing and maintaining social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. These habits include the adoption of healthy sleep patterns, developing coping mechanisms, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills, and learning to manage emotions. Supportive environments in the family, at school, and in the wider community are also key at this time.

COVID-19 has made all of these more difficult. Yet few programmes on the continent focus specifically on young people and there is little recognition of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the youth.

While young people often learn from their peers and build their self-image through socialization, global disruptions have limited these interactions. Schools closed during Nigeria's national lockdown. When schools re-opened, many private institutions offered their students the option to continue studying online.

Lockdowns and additional restrictions regarding movement mean schools and other social meeting spots are closed and students confined to their homes.

Adolescents often use school as a means of escape particularly when parents restrict their children's movement and social engagements. Add into the mix the stress of COVID-19 and we can see why adolescents would fall into depression and anxiety - and how this could push up suicide rates among the youth. Global studies have shown a worrisome trend of increased anxiety among young people since the onset of nationwide lockdowns. While no such research for young people in Nigeria exists, evidence points to similar concerns as there is a general increase of anxiety across the nation.

We need to act now to help our young people. This was true before this pandemic, but it is more urgent now than ever.

Our teachers and education system provide an important and immediate solution to this mental health crisis in Nigeria, and across the continent.

My own experience is that the adolescents I work with find it easier to open up to their teachers or peers than to their parents. What we must now ensure is that their teachers have the skills and ability to support these young people.

Research has shown that mental health services in school systems can create a environment of care that is good for the child's education and mental health. If teachers are trained on how to recognize, understand and act on signs of mental health issues among their pupils, then we would go a long way in reducing such trauma in the youth.

Yes, it is true that parents have a key role to play in supporting their offspring. But, even in lockdown, teenagers spend more time in school - albeit online. Which is why  the WHO 's mental health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) provides evidence-based guidelines for non-specialists such as teachers to enable them to better identify and support priority mental health conditions in lower-resourced settings such as our schools . The mhGAP intervention guidelines is a well-developed, tested and trusted document which covers task shifting, training, education, and capacity building for settings such as schools.

Schools already use medical students, nurses, or non-government organisations to provide extra support. But if we integrate the World Health Organisation's training to support our teachers, then we can widen the safety net. The WHO programme helps teachers identify and deal with such issues during the course of their work.

We cannot leave mental health only to the professionals; we don't have enough of them. I am one of only 250 psychiatrists serving a population of over 200 millio n Nigerians. By comparison, t here are about two million registered teachers in Nigeria .

So, simply from a numbers perspective, training teachers will go a long way to helping share this burden.

The warning signs are here: our youth are in crises. We cannot wait for a post-Covid era. And in Africa's resource-restricted environment, we must use all the means at our disposal.

Africa 's teachers are already at the frontlines to support our children. We must make sure they have the resources to do so effectively.

Dr Maymunah Kadiri is the MD/CEO of Pinnacle Medical Services and a vital voice for mental health in changing the narrative, normalizing mental health conversations, and creating safe spaces in order to achieve healthier, wealthier, and happier individuals for a just and equitable society. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @iamdrmay

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