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Supporting children and families effectively means focusing on mental health

The right to health is a fundamental human right, also recognized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which must be upheld. As health cannot exist without mental health, ignoring this component has tremendous consequences on individuals and the society. Mental wellbeing plays a key role in a child’s development and learning abilities. Strong mental health positively affects a child’s quality of life in the long term, strengthens resilience and has overall positive impacts on communities.

Adverse experiences leading to mental health issues have a major impact on a child’s development if not addressed. Similarly, the mental wellbeing of parents and caregivers is crucial for children’s and families’ wellbeing.

Mental health challenges are complex and often develop in early childhood. These issues can be caused by abuse, neglect, abandonment, lack of care and affection, violence, but also family separation, isolation, family stress and unstable care environments. Research shows that the absence of responsive relationships poses a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Research also finds that abandonment, separation or loss of a caregiver are among the most common causes of future mental illness, often with serious consequences for a child’s personality development, including low self-esteem, attachment disorders and anxiety.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated negative mental health outcomes for children and families but also led to increased conversations on the issue of reducing stigma.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, will be the leading cause of lost healthy years by 2030. An estimated one in four people globally will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Almost one million people die due to suicide every year, and it is the fourth leading cause of death among young people. Depression is ranked third in the global burden of disease, and is projected to rank first in 2030.

The economic cost of mental health problems is vast especially for developing nations. Poor mental health is both a cause and a consequence of poverty, compromised education, gender inequality, ill-health, violence and other global challenges. It impedes the individual’s capacity to work productively, realize their potential and make a contribution to their community.

“SOS Children’s Villages in South Africa has partnered with organizations like REPSSI, Synergos and Phola to build the capacity of staff to respond to and manage mental health issues. The staff used tools such as the Tree of Life to hold healing and helping conversations amongst themselves and the children. One of the mental health effects of COVID is isolation. The intervention aimed at bringing people together to connect emotionally despite the distance. This enabled programmes at SOS Children’s Villages to focus on restoring hope for the future and a sense of purpose to the children”, says Sipelile Kaseke, Head of Programmes for SOS Children’s Villages in South Africa.

Methods that combine psychological, social, and environmental factors, referred to as psychosocial interventions are increasingly used to reduce mental health issues at an early stage and play a key role in improving children and families’ wellbeing.

The mental wellbeing of caregivers is closely linked with children’s wellbeing and development. High levels of stress and mental health issues of parents and other caregivers put children at increased risk of neglect and violence as well as reducing their own mental wellbeing. It is therefore key to invest in mental wellbeing of parents and caregivers and in addressing root causes affecting their mental health challenges.

SOS Children’s Villages calls for more investment in mental health programmes for vulnerable children and care givers across South Africa. To donate and support the work of the organisation towards mental health, psycho social support and other health initiatives, go to https://www.sossouthafrica.org.za/.

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