Every year on 20 November, World Children’s Day is observed. It’s an official day for children and youth to raise their voices on issues that matter to their generation and call for adults to create a better future.
Here in Jamaica, we’ve been prompted by young people themselves against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, to do more to address unequal access to quality mental health and psychosocial support. With the continued impacts of COVID-19, children are reported to have experienced an increased level of anxiety, fear, frustration, and depression. In fact, even before the pandemic hit, a 2018 U-Report Jamaica poll of young Jamaicans showed that 53 per cent had considered suicide.
Ahead of a year of advocacy and action by UNICEF on mental health in 2023, we marked World Children’s Day by welcoming 14 young Jamaicans ages 10 and upwards into our office for a consultation, including an Instagram Live session, all hosted by media personality and mental health advocate, Simone Clarke-Cooper. This is a generation which is suffering increased challenges to their mental health, but on the other hand is also more comfortable sharing what’s #OnMyMind and their solutions.
Mental health is for everyone – Keino King, aged 13
"At any age you can know about mental health. It’s a very big thing and everyone should take it seriously. Most people think that it’s not something that you should really care about but it’s very necessary to care about it because you might think it’s not necessary and you just leave it alone but then a couple of years later, it comes back and it might tear you out … and you just crash.
“So, it’s very important to care about your mental health, it’s very important to try to keep yourself healthy and get checked every once in a while.”
Families can do more – Ngozi Wright, 10 and Kyle Nunes, 21
Ngozi: “I want parents to listen to their children. You are hearing my voice, but you are not listening to what I am actually saying. So what I want is, anybody like guardians, parents, listen to the children.”
Kyle: “We need support from our family. Sometimes when we talk to our parents, their response is not favourable, like ‘Yeah, really and truly you don’t have anything to worry about. You are not working, you are living in my house for free, you are not paying bills, and I am feeding you…so you absolutely have nothing to worry about.’ Then we don’t go to our parents to talk about the issues that really bother us.
“I want to call it a 'generational curse'. Because of the trauma that was inflicted on our parents by their parents, the generations before, it’s their way of dealing with us. Because they don’t quite understand how to step out of that narrative per se to understand that we are different, that we are in a different society, which means that we probably need to take steps to change what we went through because we didn’t like it. So let’s try to counteract what we went through to help our kids!”
What can parents do? – Ree-Anna Robinson, 20
Ree-Anna: I would suggest “gentle parenting”. Gentle parenting is about being gentle as a parent. It comes with the understanding that a child is going to be a child and helping them to manoeuvre through life in that way. So it’s not about not allowing them to make mistakes and about them being perfect as a child, but it’s about helping them to work through those mistakes, find solutions, and be better as human beings. Oftentimes in Jamaican households, there’s no room for children to make mistakes. Mistakes are taken as completely bad, once you make a mistake, you get beaten, cursed, and all of that.
“Parents need support carrying their trauma too. There’s no guideline or book that tells you how to be a parent. So, it’s important to provide resources and support, and toolkits for parents to understand how it is that they can handle certain situations with their children. A lot of times, the negative discipline comes from frustration. Parents are fed up and they are frustrated and they are going through all the different things in their lives and then right as they reach that boiling pot…when the child does something, they just turn over right on them. Children are the easiest targets. It’s important that parents receive that kind of support because they need it and their children need it, so that we can become better as a society.”
What can schools do? – Nathan Davis, 17
“The educational institutions should provide a space where we want to be in that space. This is not just about books, pens, papers, and examinations. This is about giving us the resources as individuals to go off into society to make things for ourselves, to contribute towards our country and towards our nation in ways that we can be impactful through occupations that we want to go through. Let it be a case where we are providing a space where I can come, and I know that school is here. We are doing this in terms of educating me as a student. But what are we doing in terms of getting me to understand myself, and the path that I want to go on, as well as opening that space for socialization between myself, my peers, my teachers and everybody within this environment?”
Advice to our peers – Chadae King, 21 and Raynard "Benji" O'Connor, 18
Chadae: “It’s important to understand it’s okay not to be okay. And don’t stop. Just keep going. Once you can see your foot, just take the next step.
“Each person battles depression differently but we have coping mechanisms…For me, my coping mechanism was doing something to get my mind off it. It was…journaling, writing, and then now it’s personal training fitness.”
Benji: “As a young man growing up, we are not supposed to express our feelings. But men do go through a lot of emotions. We need a space to be able to express what we feel without labeling. It’s important to have an outlet to release your emotion, and for me, boxing helped me a lot. Once I know that I am angry, I would just take it out and go back. And listening to music also helps me a lot.”
What’s UNICEF doing?
UNICEF Jamaica is working with young people to bring attention to the need for improved mental health support and care for children and adolescents. We are supporting a number of initiatives aimed at improving mental health awareness and services.
One critical initiative is the U-Matter Chatline. Together with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, UNICEF's U-Report social messaging service for youth launched the free, confidential and anonymous U-Matter mental wellness chatline.
To access help, young people are encouraged to message the word SUPPORT to 876-838-4897 on WhatsApp or with free SMS for Flow customers; or @ureportjamaica on Instagram and Facebook Messenger to connect with a trained counsellor.