On the 10 th of October 2023, World Mental Health Day was celebrated. Children across the world face multiple social, economic, family and community challenges that may all impact their mental health negatively. A UNICEF U-Report poll found that some 73% per children and young people in South Africa felt they needed mental health support in 2022(1). So, initiatives that prioritise children’s mental health and resilience-building are clearly important. But how can we put circles of support around children, especially for vulnerable children living in at-risk communities? What is already working that we can learn from to strengthen resilience within communities?

1. The power of play (2)
Resilience in its most basic form is the ability to cope and to overcome hardship within the context of relationship and environment. All children use play to learn skills and to master their environment. Important skills that can strengthen resilience are communication skills, problem-solving, connection and emotional self-regulation. Different types of games and playful activities can all play a role to strengthen these skills. Just think of the value of sport in building social skills or the strength of arts-based activities to foster creativity and imaginative problem-solving?

2. Creating safe spaces in community
A child needs at least one trusting relationship with a responsible adult to build resilience. Building nurturing relationships and reducing sources of stress are important steps in creating safe spaces within communities. These spaces do not always need to be physical places, but can also be emotional safe spaces. An example of this is where story- telling within the classroom is used to help children express their emotions, build identity or to explore the outcomes of different pathways. Even though the larger school context may be stressful, playful activities in the classroom have tremendous value in reducing stress and anxiety.

In terms of physical spaces, community libraries show great potential, where story-reading and the creation of child-friendly arts-and-crafts spaces are used to facilitate resilience-building in children. Grassroots music programmes facilitate a strong sense of belonging as an alternative to the threat of gangsterism and drugs. Community spaces where children can learn to play music instruments or participate in dance groups can help children to give a meaningful voice to their lived experiences.

3. Creating safe platforms for children to share their concerns
Children’s mental health challenges may escalate very rapidly when they feel isolated without any hope to access the relevant support. Children need to know that it is okay to reach out to someone when they are not coping and that help is available. Therefore, training community caregivers to look out for potential red flags in children and providing them with basic emotional first-aid tools and referral skills are important.

Helping children to provide healthy peer support to one another and to become leaders in reducing social ills such as bullying, also shows great potential as another layer of support. Last, but not least parent mentoring programmes may prove to be one of the strongest strategies in building resilience within the family context. Meaningful connection between parents and their children can go a long way in role-modelling coping skills and providing support when children need it most.

As a connected community, we must collectively build one step of the ladder at a time so that our children can have a strong support system in reaching the top. So, let’s not focus on how high our children must climb, but rather courageously collaborate to build a strong ladder. Together, we can empower the next generation as resilient leaders of change.

Written by Mariëtte Jacobs (Registered counselling psychologist and MD of Ezrah Community Training and Development NPC).

(1) https://www.unicef.org/southafrica/onmymind-better-mental-health-every-child-south-africa
(2) https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/podcast-resilience-play/