Recent survey reveals youth hardships
South Africa devotes significant resources to youth development, with 20% of the national government’s budget going towards education alone. However, a recent survey reveals that the youth are being increasingly forced to deal with a range of issues such as substance abuse, exposure to crime and violence, inequality and poverty. As a consequence, mental and behavioural issues are becoming more and more evident among learners.
The survey, published by the South Africa Medical Research Council, focused on 20,227 grade 8 to 10 learners from all eight school districts in the Western Cape. It revealed that most learners had tried alcohol, tobacco and/or cannabis at some point in their lifetime. Ten percent of those who had tried alcohol admitted to drinking regularly; four in ten admitted to binge drinking. Of learners who had tried smoking, four out of every ten had been introduced to cigarettes before turning 13. 30% of these learners smoked daily.
One out of every ten learners who had tried cannabis were introduced before they turned 13, with roughly 30% smoking daily. On the positive side, fewer than 2% of learners had been exposed to hard drugs such as methamphetamines or ecstasy. The results did show a strong correlation between drug use and having to repeat a grade. Substance abuse among the youth is also strongly associated with increased levels of physical injuries, crime, sexual violence and risky sexual behaviour. Furthermore, around 12% of learners had been offered drugs by a member of the community within the last year, with more than half having witnessed drug use.
Learners are also being exposed to worrying levels of violence. Roughly 15% reported being threatened by gangs over the last year, with 10% of learners claiming to be in a gang. Ten percent of students report being bullied over the last year, with a similar number admitting to bullying other learners. Even more concerning is that 40% claimed to have witnessed a stabbing, and 25% claimed to have witnessed a shooting.
Learners are also being exposed to distressing levels of sexual violence, with 7% claiming to be the victims of rape. Just over 10% students reported witnessing a rape.
Many studies involving youth in South Africa have confirmed that exposure to violence results in psychological trauma. Exposure to violence at a young age, as either a victim or witness, very often results in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and/or anxiety. Learners exposed to violence frequently display antisocial or delinquent behaviour, which can lead to criminal behaviour as they grow older.
Roughly two thirds of learners in the Western Cape were identified as being at medium risk for aggressive behaviour, with 7% being identified as high risk. Four out of every ten learners were identified as medium risk for mental health issues, with 15% being at high risk. Nearly one in four students had considered suicide over the last six months. Of those who had attempted suicide, three out of every ten attempts had been serious enough to warrant medical attention.
Recent studies have shown that a positive home environment can mitigate the negative effects of violence on young people’s mental health. However, many of the students surveyed experienced difficult circumstances at home. One in five students share a room with three or more people, and 7% reported not having enough money to afford food. It is difficult for a hungry child to concentrate at school, act rationally and cope mentally with exposure to violence.
The survey results revealed widening inequality in the Western Cape. The Metro East district, which includes Khayelitsha, had almost twice the number of hungry learners as Metro South, Metro Central and non-Metro districts. Furthermore, exposure to crime and violence was significantly higher in the metro districts compared to the non-metro districts.
When asked to identify the services most needed by learners in the community the learners most commonly requested sports, art and recreational programmes, career counselling, study support, vocational training, crime prevention services, family counselling and school counselling.
The survey recommended screening learners and intervention at a young age. This should include appropriate treatments for learners identified as having drug or alcohol problems. Mental health programmes need to be made more readily available and teachers should be trained to pick up on signs of mental distress or behavioural issues. Crime intervention strategies need to be adopted. In particular, community-based gang intervention programmes are needed throughout the Western Cape.
Western Cape Education Department Communications Director, Paddy Attwell, said that the province is actively working to identify problems and provide support to students. The province has 49 education circuits, each with its own social worker. These social workers are meant to work closely with the schools as well as the Department of Social Development to identify situations where intervention or counselling is necessary. Additionally, the province has instituted a Safe School Programme that attempts to improve learner’s lives by installing security infrastructure such as fences and alarms; influencing the social environment by providing extra-curricular activities that teach learners skills such as conflict resolution; and by providing a call centre that provides telephonic support for learners, educators and parents.
Lumkile Zani from Equal Education welcomed the response from the province, but stated that in his community in Khayelitsha he had not come into contact with any social workers from the Education Department, nor had he seen the Safe Schools Programme being implemented. He did, however, state that Equal Education felt that the most effective response involved targeting households and teaching parents the skills to identify signs of problems with their children and how to deal with them.
Early intervention is important in order to get problems under control before they transform into a myriad of risk factors. Because schools prepare learners cognitively, socially, emotionally and culturally for adulthood, school-based interventions should be the easiest and most efficient means of reaching the youth. Investment in protecting and nurturing the youth of today will ensure a more promising future for the adults of tomorrow.
Safe Schools Call Centre number: 0800 45 46 47
Craig Oosthuizen is a researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi.
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