Adolescence can be a critical time for mental health, especially in challenging circumstances. Funders who work with young people – on any issue – can help
At EMpower, we partner with organisations in emerging market countries to enable marginalised young people to transform their lives and communities. In 2016, we shifted our strategy in South Africa to support programmes that focused on adolescent mental health and resilience. Why? Because although 65 per cent of the young people with whom our partners worked managed to get jobs after graduation, only 35 per cent remained in employment six months later. We learned that fostering better mental health, helping build communities of care and strengthening organisational capacity are fundamental to achieving the goals our grantee partners sought for young people.
Mental health problems often begin during adolescence. In South Africa and other challenging environments, a mix of poverty, violence and intergenerational trauma lead to high levels of unaddressed psychological distress. The young people with whom our partners work live in households that are below the national poverty line and are regularly exposed to high levels of violence and volatility. Young women in South Africa face among the highest levels of gender-based violence in the world, which has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. One partner found that youth in their programme had experienced eight traumatic events each year in the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 (compared to the UK/US average of 4.8 per lifetime). Compounded over time, these events compromise young people’s ability to focus on learning, make healthy decisions and engage positively with others.
In South Africa and other challenging environments, a mix of poverty, violence and intergenerational trauma lead to high levels of unaddressed psychological distress.
EMpower’s work in South Africa focuses on supporting partners who work directly with young people and, where needed, with their caregivers. We have seen that, even in challenging circumstances, grantee partners have found ways to support the mental health and resilience of young people. For example, one organisation developed a community monitoring programme featuring regular socially-distanced home visits to ensure girls remained safe from violence.
Given continuing stigma and other barriers around discussing or seeking care for mental health needs, innovative approaches are often required. Such programmes employ methods that promote young people’s self-awareness; forge connections; develop the ability to self-regulate; focus on what they can control and help them take purposeful action. These strategies are not only beneficial in themselves, they also improve young people’s educational, health and livelihoods outcomes.
In 2021, we commissioned a listening exercise including grantee partners and young female programme participants to understand whether young people’s mental health needs are served by current approaches, to document existing and emerging best practices and identify capacity strengthening needs. The girls and young women (aged 10-24) told us they feel unsafe, often overwhelmed, struggle to meet basic needs and were facing additional challenges as a result of Covid. One said, ‘I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure that everyone in my family is taken care of. I cannot just focus on myself because my family will drown in their stuff.’
The girls and young women (aged 10-24) told us they feel unsafe, often overwhelmed, struggle to meet basic needs and were facing additional challenges as a result of Covid.
During this exercise, evidence emerged that some approaches are both highly valued by the young people and successful. These include: a) creating safe spaces to help young people explore their experiences, and learn to recognise, express and manage their emotions; b) exposure to unfamiliar situations in which young people are forced to face fears and practise different responses to stress; c) having mentors who come from their own community and are able to forge relationships on the basis of shared power; d) having access to mental health professionals in the partner organisation and in the public health system. These strategies are engaging, relatively low-cost and effective, yet many young people also have needs that go beyond the ability of our partners and require expert intervention and treatment. It is critical for foundations that fund work with young people to recognise how fundamental mental health is to achieving other goals.
This article is free-to-read thanks to sponsorship from the authors.
Deborah Diedericks is a programme officer at EMpower.