Happy International Youth Day! August is the youth month. Young people today are arguably more engaged in social and civic issues that affect their communities and countries than ever before. Engaging youths can create the leaders of tomorrow, but with these expectations, they also face a lot growing up. They encounter a lot of challenges in life to such an extent that they are a vulnerable group, which can be affected by mental health despite the fact that mental health facilities are scarce in Zimbabwe.
We know today that a young person will probably experience an identity crisis at some point. They are eager to know who they really are; what are they going to be when they grow up; How are they going to live their life; which college are they going to; which program are they going to major in; etc. There is pressure not only from themselves but also from parents and the larger community, because they are seen as having reached a stage where they are expected to be doing something and being something acceptable. It is also at this stage where the issues of gender come in. For example, homosexual - especially in Zimbabwe - and girls' rights are not upheld. As a result, some youths start to feel as if their identity does not fit in their society. With all these questions in mind, many start to develop mental problems like depression, anxiety, personality disorders, eating disorders, and more.
Youths also face challenges when they reach the stage of going to college. Some are stressed with which college to attend, whereas others are stressed about not going to college because they don't have the money or because they did not pass well in school. Going to college or not going to college, there is still pressure. For those that are going to college, there's fear of the unknown; fear of failing to fit in (exclusion). In Zimbabwe, a stage of transition from high school were everyone wears uniforms to college, where people put on their clothes - it's a small thing at first glance, but the sudden change in self-expression and social interaction can really affect young people, because there is a shift of moving from an environment where you feel that you are all equal to an environment where social classes can now be seen. That shift alone affects one's mental health. There is pressure to try to fit into a certain class. That's why most youths' lifestyles change when they go to college, at least here in Zimbabwe. We see youths start prostitution so that they can have money to fit with others that comes from rich backgrounds - some will steal so that they can fit in. Due to this pressure, there is high risk of personality disorders, depression, among others.
Youths also suffer pressure from relationships. While adults do as well, youths are particularly vulnerable to this as they are often experiencing relationships for the first time. Sometimes, there is the stage where they have boyfriends, and they can break up yet just move onto another one. But there is also a stage where they want a serious relationship because they feel that they are now ready for marriage. When youths are in this second type of stage, they might get into a relationship with the mindset that the other person is the one for marriage - which can thus affect mental health hence there is increased potential for jealousy, insecurity, obsessiveness, etc. If the relationship fails due to unfaithfulness or death, most youths have a tendency of developing depressive or even suicidal thoughts. In Zimbabwe, just like in other African countries, girls are expected to be married between 25-28. The tremendous pressure from society can cause girls to be obsessive with relationships because they want to be married, At this point, failure to get married leads to severe stigmatization.
It is also important to note that most youths now spend most of their time on social media platforms rather than outdoors. This has helped many youths to succeed in their exams because of the technological power of copy and paste. However, it also affects youths negatively. Social media makes many feel as if they are being left out because to some, social media is used to show of how wealthy and beautiful they are. Social media is also used to bully or abuse others, with examples like cyberbullying and revenge porn.
Career development also affects most youths, especially in Zimbabwe. When youths finish college, they may hold great expectations that they are going to be employed or they are going to start their own business - only to find out that they are not going to be employed anywhere and that the environment is not productive for any business. Rather, a reality of the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer is unveiled. This pushes many youths to be frustrated, lose hope, get bored with life, and generally kills their positivity - many end up engaging in drug abuse to escape from the realities of life.
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in Zimbabwe have also brought about major changes in people’s lifestyles and social relationships, which will have long-term impacts on their mental and physical health. At Letters to Strangers Zimbabwe, we are seeing increased stress, anxiety, depression and fear amongst our members. Demands for family therapy have grown in response to increased reports of gender-based violence. We believe the pandemic serves as a wake-up call to invest more in maternal mental health in Zimbabwe, among other important health and social needs.
As a result, L2S+Zim will embark on:
Community mental health awareness promotion. Outreach activities to raise awareness and provide communities with accurate information on infection prevention from WHO and the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) and mask distribution.
Monitoring and risk assessment. We will carry out a study on how COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of communities in Zimbabwe. This study will help us identify affected households so that we can refer families to counselling services.
We have created a team WhatsApp group to support each other emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally so we can continue to provide essential services. We have already noted increased reports of gender-based violence and inequality.
In conclusion, as we celebrate the youth month, let's celebrate bearing in mind that the youth are a vulnerable group which faces a lot, and that they need to be involved in every decision-making process since they are almost always directly impacted. Additionally, mental health facilities are a must to be available in every community. We know we at L2S+Zim will certainly keep these thoughts at the forefront of our work.