May 20, 2021

Protection of children's mental health

The mental health of children is important but is often neglected.

As the saying goes, the future lies in the hands of the children. Therefore, their health plays a significant role. While the general health of children is important, the mental health of children is equally important and is often neglected in comparison to their physical health.

There are various factors that can influence a child's mental health, for example, being abused (physically and emotionally), being neglected, family conflict, not having access to medical treatment and so on. 

The Constitution provides children with basic rights, such as:

>     access to basic nutrition, shelter and health care services;

>     access to family care and parental care; and

>     to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation.

Apart from the above basic rights, the Children's Act 38 of 2005 (“Children's Act”) provides that it is the duty of the parents or legal guardians to care for their children. This will include to provide children with a suitable place to live, to protect the children's well-being and to protect them from maltreatment, neglect, physical or emotional harm and so on.

If a parent or legal guardian does not provide children with the necessary care, the Children's Act provides for procedures for those children to be placed in alternative care. This means that children are placed in foster care, a childcare centre, or in temporary safe care. A social worker or police officer may remove children from their home and place them in temporary safe-care without a court order if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the children are being abused or neglected and needs immediate assistance. Removing children must be the best way to keep them safe.  

If children are provided with these basic rights and care, it may have a positive impact and reduce the long term effects on their mental health. However, there may be negative impacts on children's mental health that lead to long term mental illness that requires treatment.

The Mental Health Care Act 17 of 2002 (“Act”) regulates, amongst other things, the appropriate care, treatment and rehabilitation services that should be available to people with mental health problems. Unfortunately, the Act does not make specific reference to the care, treatment and rehabilitation of children, but children are included under the definition of “mental health care user”. 

Under the Act, a mental health care user must give his/her consent to receive any form of mental health care or to be admitted. A child, who is capable of making an informed decision and depending on the stage of any mental illness, may approach a health establishment for assistance. The health establishment must then provide the appropriate care, treatment and rehabilitation services. If the health establishment is not equipped to do so, the mental health care user must be referred to an establishment that can assist. In instances where a child is not capable of making an informed decision, his/her parents or legal guardians can apply in writing to the head of the health establishment to submit the child for care and treatment.

Although the general rule is to obtain consent, there are instances where a child can be treated for mental illness without consent. Examples of this would include where the mental illness is so serious that any delay in providing the necessary care and treatment will lead to death or irreversible harm, serious self-inflicted harm or serious damage caused to the property of the mental health care user or other.

With these rights and protections in place, mental health care of children remains a severe problem that is not always adequately addressed. This might be due to lack of resources and knowledge in respect of the mental health of children.

Any person or a child can voluntary report any neglect or any form of abuse that may have a negative impact on child's mental health.

The following organisations ensure that children are protected against abuse through getting involved with the community and to deploy volunteers to hold awareness talks, support families, provide training, and investigation:

>     ChildLine South Africa:          08000 55 555

>     Child Welfare South Africa:  074 080 8315

There are organisations that specifically assist children with mental disorders. Both children and adults can seek help if they know someone or if they themselves require help. Such organisations are the following:

>     SADAG Mental Health Line:  011 234 4837.

>     Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students: 0800 41 42 43.

 Children's mental health is important as it can lead to disorders such as depression, bipolar, suicidal tendencies and anxiety, as well as experiencing challenges in education and learning. In light of the above, there are certain steps that can be taken to avoid the negative effects on a child's mental health and to assist with the treatment of any mental illnesses. Through being aware and educated on what steps can be taken, one can move forward to remove stigmas attached to mental health issues and to work towards overall better mental health of children.

Did you know…Any person or a child can voluntary report any neglect or any form of abuse that may have a negative impact on child's mental health.