Mental illness on the rise among South African Youth

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The South African youth are being confronted increasingly by pressures such as high unemployment and poverty rates which may negatively affect their mental health. According to The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), such triggers might expose the youth to mental illness such as Bipolar Mood Disorder which typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood and continues throughout one’s life.

Bipolar Mood Disorder, also known previously as manic depression, is a mental illness that resuts in a dramatic shift in a person’s mood and behaviour. While the exact cause of Bipolar Mood Disorder is unknown, it is believed to be a combination of biochemical, genetic and psychological factors. It is estimated that the global prevalence of Bipolar Mood Disorder is between one and two-percent of a given population and has been said to be as high as five-percent in some areas.

During a manic episode, a person may feel unusually energised or excited and may be more active than usual and conversely, during a depressive episode, a person feels extremely sad, down, or hopeless. They may be much less active than usual and have little or no interest in the things that would usually excite them.

Bipolar Mood Disorder is heavily stigmatised and society often portrays and refers to those suffering from this mental illness as mentally unstable. This is often the reason why people suffering from Bipolar Mood Disorder can take up to two years to receive treatment (40% of respondents) while 68% will go on to discontinue their treatment, and a third believe  they can handle the problem on their own, according to local research conducted by SADAG.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 10 – 20% of children and adolescents experience mental disorders worldwide. Improving the health and well-being of adolescents and youth is crucial for their well-being, and for their future economic productivity, because behaviour and health developed during these stages of life are key predictors of the adult burden of disease, and because health like education is a key factor in the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Untreated Bipolar Mood Disorder can have devastating effects on individuals and their families and friends, often resulting in relationships being damaged, careers being disrupted and those with the illness suffering emotionally and physically with an increased risk of death from suicide and accident.

“It is important for parents and family members to be aware of the symptoms/signs of Bipolar Mood Disorder. When symptoms show up during a person’s adolescence or teenage years, it is important to consider that they are already going through a lot of changes due to puberty and hormonal shifts. Education and awareness for Bipolar Mood Disorder is critical in addressing the stigma related to the condition. It will ensure that the individual, their family and friends can better understand the treatments available and support each other to assist individuals diagnosed with living a fully functional life, says Johan Lombaard, Life Brackenview Clinic Manager and Social Worker.

Symptoms of bipolar disorders in teenagers:

Signs to look out for during a manic episode include:

  • a short temper or unusual outbursts
  • appearing extremely happy or acting very silly in a way that is not typical for people their age
  • trouble sleeping or not sleeping at all
  • not feeling tired
  • having trouble staying focused on one thing
  • talking very quickly or trying to talk about many things at once
  • talking or thinking about sex or engaging in it more often
  • risky or impulsive behaviours
  • inflated ego or feeling very self-important


During a depressive episode, signs to look out for include:

  • feeling very sad or depressed
  • crying regularly
  • feeling lonely or isolating themselves
  • complaining about pains, such as headaches or stomachaches
  • feeling guilty
  • feeling worthless
  • anxiety
  • feeling angry or irritated with no known cause
  • changes in eating habits, for example, eating too much or too little
  • having very little energy even if they got enough sleep
  • taking little interest in activities that would usually excite them
  • romanticising death or thinking about taking their own life


Life Healthcare is one of the leading providers of private psychiatric services in South Africa and operates nine dedicated Life Mental Health units in four provinces, offering acute mental healthcare aimed at effectively treating the effects of bipolar and other mental health disorders.

If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from a bipolar mood disorder, it’s important to consult a mental health professional.

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