WHY 1 OUT OF EVERY 6 TEENAGERS IS DEPRESSED RIGHT NOW
Recently, we published the first part of our interview with Lagos Mental Health Physician, Dr. Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri on how Depression is killing women in Nigeria. In this second part, she talks about how children are suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies. In this interview with City People’s Contributing Editor, IYABO OYAWALE, Dr Kadiri talks about how parents can help these teenagers. Read on for more insights!
In an interview you granted Vanguard on World Mental Health Day in 2012, you said people think depression affects the elderly but young people are affected these days.
What is the current situation in Nigeria?
UNICEF did research last year and it also involved Nigeria and we know UNICEF is all about children. And the surprising thing was that one out of every six Nigerian teenagers is depressed. Not will be depressed, is depressed. There’s a difference. Will be means futuristic, means it’s current and there are many reasons. I released a book last year on June 11th on Depression called Deep Expression. The book is in a story-like format talking about teenagers and how they interact. Between that June 11th and March 11th (8 months after the release of the book), we have seen 102 teenagers in my centre that are depressed, some of them suicidal, and some of them have attempted suicide twice. So, it is our reality and what are the commonest things that we’ve seen them complain about. Parental communication or obligation to these children, children are living in hostile environments, and they have toxic relationships with their parents. And because we’re a society where we shut down our children, we don’t allow them to express themselves. At the height of COVID lockdown, children realized that the parents they used to see as demi-gods are like evils. They found out that their parents were always fighting; they were not in a good relationship with themselves, the easiest people to suffer in that relationship are children because they would use them as scapegoats. Before the lockdown, maybe one parent is out of the house before the children wake up and then before the children sleep one parent is not yet back so their interaction, they never really saw it.
So, on that home front, family is a big issue. Secondly, social media-driven challenges. Social media is very easy these days, though we have age specifications for when to open Facebook when to open Instagram when to open Snapchat when to open Twitter, and all that, but they don’t follow it. They put in ages that are not correct so that they’ll be able to access them, and a lot of them because their brain is still growing, they sponge in anything. We’re born blank, we write on that wall, so they sponge in everything that they learn and all that. They also seek social media validation and that is a pressure point for quite a number of them. They post a picture, no likes, no comments, they feel there’s an issue. Then, of course, children with low self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, and that thing go back to our family before we even go to school, because if you don’t instil those things in that child, and the school doesn’t help you to make it happen, you’ll find that the child would just be having all those body image issues.
That’s why you see children that are on the plumpy side attempting to kill themselves, because somebody says “you’re fat, you don’t deserve to live, die.” I have seen a child come to us and that’s what her classmates were telling her. So, those are some of the reasons why we’re experiencing this. Parents need to do better in ensuring children are well-brought up; instill the right discipline, while the schools will help to promote that. One of the pieces I wrote, I think last year, was on using teachers to help African teenagers manage their mental health, and the reason is that 2/3 of children’s waking hours is spent in school. Before 8 o’clock, children are in school, they won’t come back home till like 3, 4, they spend more hours in school, so the schools need to be brought into that space and they’re able to help the children. So, even if some homes are dysfunctional, children can also let their parents know what exactly they want and how they should be treated. It’s like mentoring and reverse mentoring. When it is instilled in school, children can help their parents to know that this is not how it should be as against the other way. So, these are some of the things that are happening. Children and young adults are also getting depressed and with the statistics from WHO, half of all mental illnesses start before the age of 14 and 2/3 before the age of 24. If we know this, we’d not say that children don’t get depressed. Children can get depressed. Nigerian children are getting depressed, they’re getting suicidal and Nigerian children and young adults are taking their lives, which is not what we knew before. But now, this is our current reality.
So, how do we help our children because we live in a society where we shut these children down, I’m your parent, don’t talk when I talk, don’t express yourself, bla bla bla and these children are dying silently.
There are 3 major areas that we must look into: Family first because that’s where the children came from. Schools second because that’s where they spend most of their time (whether it’s a public or private school) and the religious centres (a lot of them even have the children’s unit). The first place is home, the family, how do you know that your child is going through emotional issues? One word I always tell parents “watch out for a change.” You may not know everything but you know something has changed in your child. Who your child was yesterday as against who your child is today, you know something has changed, and not ignoring our instincts, especially maternal instincts. If you feel, think something is wrong, then something is wrong. Don’t ignore it! It’s that change you watch out for, because children will not exhibit classical symptoms so let’s say for example depression. Children will not exhibit classical symptoms of depression the way adults would exhibit. How would you know that a child is sad? A child would not even walk up to you and say I’m sad or a teenager. They would know that but they may not express it so watch out. What are the changes in the child? Is this child getting withdrawn to him or herself? Is this child getting angry easily because he may be on one end to the other end. It’s either he’s withdrawn, sad or angry, irritable or stubborn. What you call stubborn, you’re talking to the child, and the child is talking back, or even walking away. Something like that makes you know a child has changed. So, what is it that has changed? The sleeping pattern of your child, has it also changed? Academics, so one thing a lot of parents find out is: “my child is having poor academic performance.” But often times these were all things they didn’t see. In the course of results, because it’s something that they can see, the school would send to them, “oh, the child was an A-class student but now he’s a B or an E-student. “ You’ll be wondering where did we miss it? But often times, in between, a lot of things have been happening, the parents haven’t really noticed. If the parents do not notice, school may notice because teachers play a significant role and this is why we’re saying teachers have to be taught on children’s emotional well-being. So, when there’s a change, they can also pick that change. It’s not every child that would be bold enough to express themselves. And like you said, we push them down, we shut them down, they’re not even expressing themselves. Like those children I told you we’re seeing in our centre, some are already suicidal; cutting themselves and when you go on Google, there are 1000 ways to die. It’s there. When we were growing up, there were what we call pen pal. Do you have a pen pal? You write, you go to the post office, you put stamp, you post, it will take one or two weeks or one month, depending on the side of the world the person is but these days, it’s just a click away because of social media and Internet! So, you may be here in Nigeria, your child is communicating with somebody in Australia or Russia who’s telling the child that: “your parents are this, your parents are archaic, and you don’t need to be in such an environment.” Over there, they’re taught to express themselves, here we’re not teaching our children to express themselves and we have to change that narrative. People need to know that you have the parenting right, you also have to know how to manage the children. It’s not beating that makes the child better or wiser. We are already a lost generation, they beat us o, the children of these days, you beat them, they revolt. And these are all telling us that beating does not make a child disciplined. It messes up their emotional well-being. Because a lot of us are traumatized and we’re hurting people with our trauma. We’ve not healed from our trauma. So, we bleed on other people and the truth is that hurt people hurt people.
When you’re hurt and you haven’t healed, you’re likely going to hurt other people. Let us not continue that vicious circle of trauma because trauma is one major ingredient or factor that makes people have a mental illness. So, let us change this narrative and start watching out for our children, building self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence in them, and allowing them to express themselves, in an assertive way. Not a passive way or passive-aggressive way, in an assertive way. And, we the parents should also teach ourselves how to listen to them non-judgmentally so that we’ll understand what they’re going through as against responding to what they say. Listen to them non-judgmentally, don’t criticize them, don’t judge them, and don’t be apostolic. All these sayings: “God is in control, it’s not our portion, God forbid, it’s a spiritual attack, back to sender” is not gonna change anything.
You’ve got to be actionable in your words. What are you doing to make sure this child is stable? And if it’s for genetic, reasons because if one or both parent has had a mental illness, the child is at risk of having a mental illness not because you’re bad, not because the environment is hostile, not because it’s toxic relationship but because of genetics. When that happens, making that child get help is your responsibility. Let’s create a friendly environment where they can easily express themselves, we need to go back to that because if we’re saying 1 out of every 6 Nigerian teenagers is depressed, that is huge, these are our future leaders. These are the legacies we want to leave behind. So, if a child is already dysfunctional, how are you expecting them to be productive, economically, in society, and relationship-wise? So, we need to start telling ourselves the truth.