[Scroll down to watch a video of her speech]
From the moment COVID-19 turned our world upside down, the world slowly started to become more sympathetic to the mental health of our young people, and they in turn have not shied away from speaking out and sharing their stories.
Globally, statistics show just how impacted we have been, even before the pandemic. In Jamaica, we have notescaped this reality, as 60 per cent of people treated at hospitals for attempted suicide are under the age of 24. Our young people are at risk…the situation… is dire.
For many young Jamaicans, school has been positive. For others, while school has been their escape from poverty and violence at home and in the community, unfortunately it has also been a place where they don’t feel supported, especially for those struggling with their mental health, and have trouble accessing counsellors they feel able to trust.
Social norms have forced our youth to toughen up to face the world, particularly our young males, who have been socialised to remove their emotions and ignore their intrinsic struggles.
Violence within the home and school poses another threat. Physical, verbal and emotional harm to children under the guise of discipline can cause lifelong trauma. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study on the prevalence and impact of bullying in Jamaica, almost 30 per cent of students said that they feared going to school because of bullying. School should be a safe space, for every student.
COVID-19 changed the meaning of the word “safe” but it has been so much more than a physical health crisis. When schools closed, the “short” break got longer and initial excitement became despair. Many of my fellow students felt anxious and distressed, triggered by all the uncertainties. This period will never be forgotten. The cut was deep, and the scar will be long lasting, if the world does not act now!
The good news is that several countries have made significant improvements…
UNICEF Jamaica, with guidance from its U-Report Youth Council, acted on responses to U-Report polls that revealed the extent of youth mental health challenges and pivoted to establish a chatline on the same platform…thus U-Matter was born. A partnership between the Ministry of Health and Wellness and UNICEF, it engages youth on their own terms without stigma, using a mode of communication with which they are comfortable – text and mobile messaging.
Using U-Matter, youth can access support coordinated by the Caribbean Child Development Centre – for free and anonymous counselling. Using it is easy. Just message the very simple but incredibly important word “SUPPORT”, give your age, gender and parish; and then wait to be connected with a friendly, trained counsellor.
I too have been in need of support, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the support of UNICEF, I spoke out about it, hoping to help others who may have experienced something similar. I also made it my point of duty when serving as Spokesperson for Jamaica’s National Secondary Students’ Council (NSSC) to speak up about mental wellness and ways to cope.
The Reimagine Education Report, a youth-led submission by UNICEF-NSSC to the Education Transformation Commission, presented to the Prime Minister of Jamaica is where youth made their dreams of a better education system come alive. Among several critical recommendations, they shared that more positive student-teacher relationships can allow each student to feel valued and seen.
We must continue to increase access to services and resources. As a Jamaican citizen it is easy to gain access to a physician when you have the flu, but not for mental health. Support is somewhat of a luxury, sometimes costing more than the minimum wage in the country. How can this be, when this ought to be a part of the regular routine for any member of society, especially our young?
At the legislative level, we need a national policy that is truly cross-sectoral, protecting and promoting the mental wellness of adolescents and children, focusing on early prevention in communities and public institutions with emphasis on confidentiality in schools and increasing conversations surrounding mental health.
Each step is vital… We must normalise these conversations because the truth is that many of our youth aren’t ready or don’t even want to use the term mental health. As with older generations, it is associated with being labelled “crazy”, and we must work towards removing this stigma. Mental health can be a positive thing, because if properly supported it can improve our decisions and behaviours, so that we can not only survive but thrive.
We need all stakeholders to come together in an intentional manner to address these critical issues. We need all hands-on deck. As I’ve learned over the years, big changes come from many small steps towards the same goal.
What’s UNICEF doing?
The U-Matter mental health chatline is provided free by UNICEF’s U-Report messaging service for youth, connecting users aged mainly 16-24 to chat anonymously and confidentially with trained counsellors. To access, message the word SUPPORT to 876-838-4897 on WhatsApp or SMS (free for Flow users); or @ureportjamaica on Instagram or Facebook Messenger. Launched in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Caribbean Child Development Centre of the University of the West Indies, Open Campus, U-Matter was named in a vote among U-Report’s now 13,500-strong community in Jamaica.