From ‘broken’ families to unbreakable spirit
Mental health support helps adolescents better navigate personal struggles
When Naila*, 16, introduces herself in front of the participants of an ‘Adolescent Circles’ session in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, she looks like a regular teenager. But behind her glasses and modest appearance, she has gone through more hardships in her life than most others her age.
Growing up, the experience of parental divorce and conflict at home was difficult for Naila. As the eldest child, she took on the role of supporting her siblings through challenging times.
"Ever since my parents got divorced, I've become my mom's walking diary," says the school activist.
"It's not easy as I have to absorb the second-hand pain and keep my siblings from learning what happened."
When Naila would see her relatives during Islamic holidays, they would often tell her to be strong. She would take their advice and just grin and bear it. She kept her pain and worries to herself, until two facilitators at the Adolescent Circles session offered her the time and space to share her feelings and stories.
"I've always been talkative when communicating with my teachers, friends and even new people, to the point that some peers assumed that I am overly friendly. But this session has made me realize that I had never talked to myself, until today," admits Naila. "Now, I can't stop thanking myself for being strong every day, despite everything that happened."
The session in Aceh is part of a process to co-create mental health tools for adolescents by teachers, programmers and other experts via Adolescent Circles. Adolescent Circles are an innovative approach to help adolescents through challenging times, building on the UNICEF-WHO toolkit Helping Adolescents Thrive. Through a partnership with the Z Zurich Foundation, UNICEF is currently piloting new approaches to promote mental well-being and prevent mental health conditions among young people and caregivers. Pilots are taking place in seven countries, including Indonesia.
The mental health tools aim to improve knowledge, practices and behaviours in seven skill components, including emotional regulation, stress management, problem-solving and interpersonal skills, for both younger adolescents (10-14) and older adolescents (15-19). The Adolescent Circles are a way to test the tools and for young people to engage with their peers, seek support and feel a sense of connectedness, which is important for mental wellbeing.
Finding a voice
In the same session is Agam*, 18, a high school student who seems quieter than his peers. When he was in third grade, his father decided to leave his family after Agam’s mom had a stroke. From that day on, life felt grueling. Agam didn’t think anyone genuinely cared about him. At times, he even thought of ending his own life.
"One time, I shared how I feel with my peers, and all I got was ridicule saying that I was overly sensitive, a boy shouldn't cry, etc. Since then, I no longer have the guts to share what and how I feel with anyone," he explains. " The session today makes me feel like there are certain people who truly care about how I really feel."
Agam and Naila are not the only adolescents are managing the impact of parental separation. Records from the provincial Sharia Court show that there were 6,823 divorce cases from January – October 2022.
As they navigate family separation and other challenges, there is limited understanding of the emotional and mental health challenge issues faced by young people. According to a 2023 U-Report poll of 887 adolescents aged between 12 – 19 in Aceh, 46 per cent of the respondents perceived they were supported by their family members but without understanding their emotional needs.
The mental health pilot programme underway aims to increase the involvement of parents, teachers and experts in an effort to raise awareness of mental health challenges, strengthen support to promote mental well-being and prevent mental health conditions among adolescents.
"My mom told me that coming from a ‘broken’ family isn't a reason to have a broken future. And today I learned that it's okay to be vulnerable sometimes and ask for help if needed."
*Naila, Agam and their family’s real names have been changed to protect their identities
These activities were carried out by UNICEF in partnership with the Z Zurich Foundation. Learn more about our global partnership for youth mental well-being here.