Friday, August 12, was the International Youth Day, marked to amplify the message that action is needed across all generations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and leave no one behind.
It’s also meant to raise awareness on certain barriers to intergenerational solidarity, which has detrimental effects on society as a whole. It also got me thinking, about how we treat our youth in this country. I don’t have stats for other nations, but I am pretty sure we treat our youth far worse than many countries around the world. My belief is that that’s the exact same reason why our young find it difficult to soar to the best of their potentials.
While avoiding clichés and syrupy ‘inspirational’ quotes, I am going to take a look at mental health, particularly that of our young people. Like I’ve observed before, in Nigeria it’s still generally OK to call a mentally-ill person a ‘madman’ or ‘mad woman’. But don’t be quick to condemn, given our position as one of the world’s most conducive nations for political incorrectness. So imagine such an environment actually being sympathetic to young people suffering from the trauma – literal and figurative – which being Nigerian in Nigeria today ensures we do. Treating our youths like manure is actually an old Nigerian problem, and is only amplified due to the abysmal social situations that abound.
The best way to do that, actually, is to look at the journey from childhood to youth, precisely young adulthood. Someone is born into a society that basics of life are difficult to come by, and parents or guardians have to struggle to meet their obligations to children and wards. Feeding, clothing, medicine, education, and even shelter are increasingly difficult for anyone to shoulder, much less the average Nigerian. Children, on their way to youth are some of the most perceptive and impressionable individuals, and they see and feel the struggles of those who take care of them, even if youthful rebellion makes it seem otherwise. Caveat: I’m not a psychologist, and say this mainly because of material I have come across and read over the past few decades.
Why am I convinced? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event, either by experiencing it or witnessing it. It causes flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Our youths today are facing the worst brunt of the ravages of a failing economy, shaky security system, and a collective fading of conscience. Playing witness to things that are way above their age grade automatically means a kind of trauma is experienced. A very good bad example – or a bad good example – is the ongoing scourge of banditry and its more widespread cousin of kidnapping.
Many times, youths are kidnapped and sometimes even killed by murderous criminals without rhyme or reason. Others are rape, domestic violence, and a slew of other types of abuse that ensure the youth grows up with all kinds of flaws. Toss in a society that does not understand mental health in the least, and you have a recipe for disaster. But many people I have spoken to about this issue have said even the adults who are supposed to shape and guide the youths are themselves victim of a landscape that is increasingly unfriendly to any effort at providing a healthy environment to raise children, or guide youths into full adulthood. While I understood that position, I still disagreed with a sly attempt at sliding away from individual responsibility.
That’s because nobody could properly justify how, in essence, we are raising a future society of people we did nothing to mend or heal, but everything to break and confound. Away from the anecdotal, to the specific and scientific, is the tragic fact that our country has Africa’s highest caseload of depression, while ranking 15th in the world in the frequency of suicide. Many of these are our youths. More sad stats say there aren’t up to 150 psychiatrists in Nigeria. This realization is enough to, well, drive one insane. The chickens that will come back home to roost from this won’t be birds. They will be bloodthirsty raptors.
While there is no universally agreed international definition of the age group called ‘youth’, the United Nations (UN) defines them as persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. And today, there are over 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, accounting for 16 per cent of the global population, and rising. By 2030, that number is expected to hit 1.3 billion. These figures and all the nightmare scenarios that precede them make it imperative for a sensible, decent, and practical way of interacting with and treating our youths. After all, we were them in the past, and they will be us in the future.