Oct 26 , 2019

Young people today are faced with increased pressures from the fast pace of life and the non-stop social media world exposing them to stress and mental illness.

The young person wrote in an anonymous Ethiopian health group, “Where would I be able to find anxiety medicine without prescription?”

Within the past few years I have been hearing people self-diagnose with various serious mental illnesses. Mental health awareness week is observed in October every year. Few institutions use this time to dismantle preconceived notions of mental illness.

In a country like Ethiopia, with the highly religious and cultural fibers strongly intertwined, subjects such as mental health are rarely spoken about. Yet within today’s youth exposed to online campaigns on the information, they begin to act in half informed manners.

The dangers of self-diagnosing and falling victim to Cyberchondria is that the person becomes convinced of having an illness instead of seeking professional help. The youth in Ethiopia today have very little guidance, and they seek answers wherever they can.

A community’s responsibility should be, as much as possible, to provide the guidance necessary. Parenthood is an immense load of responsibility, and no parent needs to be reminded more of that. Yet in today’s globalized world, Ethiopian parents and their children need more help than before.

Shielding children has long been the motto of parenthood. I remember in a wake that was happening at our house, my parents never once acknowledged what was happening. My aunt comically told us that everyone was gathered, because someone was sick. No one had an idea of how to deal with teaching children about death.

We leave off difficult and defining conversations to be had outside of our homes. Even the schools we attend do not feel fit to teach about this subject. So where do children and young people learn about mortality, sexuality and mental health?

When those who are responsible for children do not take the time to address the conversations that need to be had, they give space for young people to learn all this on their own. While social media platforms can be helpful tools, they can also be very dangerous to those in search of answers. An unmediated platform such as Facebook or Instagram is a portal of unimaginably diverse and dangerous content.

As some Ethiopians would like to argue to shutdown social media access, what is evident is that we are a community that has not yet grasped our own identities. Parents today are better at engaging their children than those before them. Yet unless they are able to move forward with the times, we will have youth who are lost and being brought up by outside influences.

It is in this state of mind that parents and guardians should be confronting the problems facing young people today. Parenthood can now begin with listening and learning. As many Ethiopian’s parental instincts are to dismiss children’s voices, we fall short of being a real supportive force for them in the process.

“You know in the old days, the women and children eat after the patriarchs are finished. In some families they only get the leftovers.” I was about ten when I first heard this story or when the story first made sense to me. At the dinner, all of us ladies and girls were being asked to be grateful for our place on that table. Everything that does not belong in the linear patriarchal narrative, in that tiny box of assumptions that compiles our identity, was not welcome.

Asking to feel grateful for being forwarded decency is not progress. Progress is being able to listen to the youth around us and legitimising their feelings and guiding them to adulthood.

As parents would take their children with physical ailments to the hospital, they should do the same if a child is exhibiting signs of mental illness - they should be able to take them to a professional. When a child has a problem, we should encourage them to come to adults to be guided through making the right decisions. Today we have youth that make mistakes and are so terrified of their parents they would rather hide their mistakes and fall deeper than put trust in their parents.

We have a world that needs its youth to be proactive decision makers. When we shield children from the world, they grow up unprepared for a world that does not cater to their lack of preparation.

Ethiopian parents should take a step in the shoes of their children. Instead of checking on the eternal checklist of Ethiopian success - graduations, marriage and grandchildren that all families seem invested in - we could care a bit more on what makes the child happy. Learning this simple fact can be the guiding force that brings families together.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 26,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1017]

Hanna Haile is the founder of Zellan Creative & Cultural Center. She can be reached at (hannahaile212@gmail.com).

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