Mocking the Next Generation: International Youth Day
On 17 December 1999, in its resolution 54/120, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the recommendation made by the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth (Lisbon, 8-12 August 1998) that 12 August be declared International Youth Day.
The UN Secretary Generals’ statement on the day highlights some of the core issues around youth and mental health:
A new publication from the United Nations shows that 20 per cent of the world’s young people experience a mental health condition each year. The risks are especially great as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Stigma and shame often compound the problem, preventing them from seeking the support they need. For this year’s observance of International Youth Day, the United Nations wants to help lift the veil that keeps young people locked in a chamber of isolation and silence.
The barriers can be overwhelming, particularly in countries where the issue of mental health is ignored and there is a lack of investment in mental health services. Too often, owing to neglect and irrational fear, persons with mental health conditions are marginalized not only from having a role in the design and implementation of development policies and programmes but even from basic care. This leaves them more vulnerable to poverty, violence and social exclusion, and has a negative impact on society as a whole.
Young people who are already considered vulnerable, such as homeless youth, those involved in the juvenile justice system, orphaned youth and those having experienced conflict situations, are often more susceptible to stigma and other barriers, leaving them even more adrift when they are most in need of support. Let us remember that with understanding and assistance, these young people can flourish, making valuable contributions to our collective future.
While these issues are true and ring familiar tones, the biggest problem remains governments in-responsiveness to the issues of youth development in a holistic way. Many a time, youth development in many African countries have been reduced to sports (Football) and (un)employment.
A holistic plan that links youth development to young peoples’ health (across all spheres), finance, education, politics, economy etc are missing. For instance, there is no single full blown playground for children and young people in Ghana, Liberia or Sierra Leone. Ninety percent (90%) of schools in West Africa do not have play fields or equipments. In many schools, children and by extension parents are charged with cost of sporting equipment for their wards in all levels of education.
School field trips are exclusive of regular fees and thus when even they are organised many students miss out because their parents or guardians could not afford the extra costs.
Counselling centres are non-existent in most schools – whether private or public. In the University of Cape Coast where I obtained my first and second degrees, there are no proper counselling programme for students. In my undergraduate year between 200 and 2004, there was a spike in the number of students committing suicide on campus – which led to a series of events and programmes by the counselling unit. Departments and faculties were mandated to designate counsellors but accessibility of counsellors, trust building between subscribers and counsellors and confidentiality of users of the service (the lack of them) made the programme unpopular.
At the national level, it took over 19years to craft a national policy for Ghana. Nigeria is still struggling with its review process; Liberia and Sierra Leone have programmes that are going in no particular direction and same goes for the entire 15-state West African region.
Sierra Leone is reputed to have as low as 40% percent youth employment rates – now note that in the region “youth” is 15-35years old. Consider employability age as 18years and given a youth population rate of around 45% we are talking huge numbers that do not have employment or are structurally unemployed or under-employed.
In Liberia, 40% of young people over 15years do not have education. With a workforce of 1.13million only 5% or 195,000 of Liberians are in paid employment [ibid]. This is exacerbated by poor educational infrastructure, poorly trained teachers (and conditions of service of teachers) and outdated curricular.
In many of the regions’ member states, they can claim civil wars and other issues as their cause of doing more for their youth.
However, Ghana over the last 20 years has enjoyed a relatively stable economic and political climate. But when it comes to the issue of youth development and its attendant issues we fair no better than Sierra Leone or Liberia.
Our youth programming has been erratic; projects and programmes are not backed by reliable data and have been developed and implemented as political remedies to social, economic and cultural challenges. Leaving many of our youth interventions to fail. We failed with the Ghana Youth Employment and Entrepreneurial Development Agency (GYEEDA) and many similar government led programming.
As the theme for this years’ International Youth Day (IYD) is on mental health, I will like to draw attention to the fact that if we have seen increasing spikes in youth admissions to mental facilities, it is because of a myriad of reasons. The most evident is systemic failure to create support mechanisms that leverage young people in difficult times.
Young people have lost confidence in the older generation to provide a caring and supporting environment for them.
The current 15-29year olds are carrying more responsibilities with limited avenues for support than any on the African continent. This is at a time when Africa is industrialising fast and shedding much of its traditional community support mechanism – commonly called ubuntu. The period when you could walk to a neighbour and have a meal or have your fees paid by an Uncle or Auntie. Our lives have become very individualistic away from our extended family systems.
Of course people’s nerves will crack; depression will increase; suicide rates will go high and without the support system, we are in a caught in a vicious cycle where we can not nurse our own back from their down times!
The solution to solving the West African youth crises and the global youth mental health challenges lies in governments and corporations doing more than talking – by putting their money and efforts towards the very generation that needs to carry their legacies forward.
We can not continue to mock the next generation by pretending to be helping them!
The author: Tsike-Sossah is the Director of ACIPP West Africa and the lead consultant of ACIPP Consulting. Views expressed here are solely my personal views and do not reflect the views of my employers.