‘The mental health of youth is sustained by the people, places and spaces around them’ – UP-Dalhousie resilience study finds

Posted on May 18, 2022

Township-dwelling South African youth who rise above their day-to-day circumstances are not naturally more resilient than others, while civil society, the government and the corporate sector have a part to play in creating an environment that contributes to the well-being of young people.

This is according to the latest findings of the five-year Resilient Youth in Stressed Environments (RYSE) study led by Dr Michael Ungar, the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience and Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada, and Prof Linda Theron of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Pretoria (UP).

The study followed about 1 000 youth between the ages of 13 and 24, and 100 adults in eMbalenhle and Secunda in Mpumalanga and in Drayton Valley in Alberta, Canada. Both are highly industrialised towns that rely on the oil and gas sector for employment. The towns were appropriate places to study resilience because, according to Prof Theron, “the oil and gas industry is economically volatile, offers uncertain employment prospects, attracts migrant labour and creates pollution risks”.

Human biologists, mental health professionals, community development specialists and environmental scientists have worked together on the RYSE project, which concludes at the end of this year. They investigated the strengths and protective factors that help young people from these communities adapt to social, economic and environmental change.

Dr Ungar and Prof Theron published the theory informing their study in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, and the RYSE findings were published in other impactful science journals such as Contemporary Educational Psychology, Ecology and Society and Youth and Society.

In terms of their findings related to youth, Prof Theron says that the personal and physical strength and mental health of younger people are sustained by the people, places, services, and spaces around them.

“It is important to support parents, schools and local communities that make up these circles with as many resources and as much infrastructure as possible so they can continue to shape a resilient next generation,” Prof Theron says. “Never underestimate the value of warm parents or caregivers, or even a kind neighbour; of knowledgeable, involved and prepared teachers; and of a community hall in a neighbourhood where young people can socialise and relax in a safe space.”

“Resilience in not a DIY job,” Dr Ungar adds.

Many complex systems help shape a person’s resilience, Theron adds. “Social, institutional and ecological resources such as the built environment are as important as personal strengths, including physical health and psychological ruggedness.”

The academics also found that youth in Canada and South Africa were significantly less likely to be depressed if they regularly participated in spiritual or religious activities and family or community traditions.

“Their mental health resilience depends on how much they appreciate and engage in such activities and traditions, and how many opportunities they have to socialise with enabling adults and peers,” Prof Theron explains. “Young people who appreciate others more and interact more with peers and adults experience significantly lower levels of psychological distress.”

Adolescents who grow up in homes with loving parents or caregivers and whose well-being is monitored to a fair degree generally experience fewer symptoms of depression (especially among girls) or conduct problems (among boys) compared with those whose parents are strict and less nurturing.

“In short, the mental health of younger and older adolescents from disadvantaged communities can be protected if they receive lots of warmth and moderate levels of supervision from their parents or caregivers,” Prof Theron wrote, as lead author, in a 2022 paper in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

An additional finding is that learners older than 16 who had warm parents and competent teachers were more engaged with their schooling; younger learners who attended a well-resourced school and experienced very warm parenting were also more readily engaged.

Dr Ungar and Prof Theron argue that interventions that target a young person’s family or school environment can encourage adolescents to be more involved in their schooling.

“It’s important to not only support students, but also the significant adults in their lives, such as teachers and caregivers,” Prof Theron says. “Their own resilience to stressors must be strengthened. Stressors associated with disadvantaged communities jeopardise warm parenting.”

Families, services, spaces and places matter for resilience to COVID-19 too. In a paper published last year in Plos One journal, Prof Theron and her colleagues wrote about how access to safe spaces helped young people in townships interact with others and therefore cope better during the stricter months of COVID-19 lockdown regulations in 2020.

“Civil society is key to fast-tracking emerging-adult access to resources,” she says. “Equitable access to built and natural environment resources, such as safe indoor or outdoor spaces, should be expedited, particularly when young people’s immediate environment stymies opportunities to comply with disease mitigation strategies or tolerate the frustrations of disrupted routines or dreams. Essentially, in resource-constrained contexts, continued emerging-adult resilience to COVID-19 stressors requires a social justice imperative.”

Prof Theron believes that corporate South Africa and civil society have an important role to play in youth development, by sponsoring built facilities such as community halls and recreational centres. She cites the youth in their study who were appreciative of the recreational centre that Sasol had erected in their community, as it provided them with a valuable opportunity to socialise and/or engage in community traditions.

“No society should hold its youth solely accountable for being okay when life is relentlessly tough,” Prof Theron says. “The onus is on civil society and government to purposefully and proactively create environments that facilitate resilience by providing meaningful social networks such as resilient families, as well as services, spaces and places.” Khulisa Social Solutions, a NPO that is dedicated to supporting the resilience of children and communities who are marginalised, is advocating for this message to be taken up by South Africa.

Dr Ungar will be in South Africa between 15 and 20 May 2022 for discussions with stakeholders in education and government and corporate SA on how to implement the RYSE findings. Khulisa Social Solutions is integral to the discussions with corporate SA.

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