Youth unemployment and mental health in Eswatini

May 22, 2020

Photo: UNDP

A conversation between the UNDP Eswatini and Ms Zenanile Dlamini a participant in the 2019 Graduate Intern Programme Cohort supported by UNDP Eswatini at the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC).  The 2019 ESEPARC Graduate Intern Programme cohort had four interns with each was working on different research projects throughout 2019. Ms Zenanile Dlamini is currently the Eswatini representative in the AUC/ UNDP African Young Women Leaders Fellowship Programme (AYWLFP) in New York.

The research on the relationship between youth unemployment and mental health was specifically looking at the high rates of unemployment and high rate of cases related to mental health in Eswatini youth, specifically at the correlation of how unemployment has affected health.  The research also sought for recommendations that can be put in place to support the unemployed youths to avoid mental issues. The total number of youths reached were 88 with more females reached than males.

UNDP Eswatini:  What were some of the key findings of the research?

Zenanile:  The study found a correlation between youth unemployment and mental health in certain communities in our country.  Young people remain idle due to unemployment and because of a lack of recreational facilities they are not engaged in productive activities.  They engage in other activities that affect mental health such as substance abuse and prostitution with some resulting in unwanted pregnancies.  There is a lack of social support for the young people.  Most of them feel ostracised from the communities because they are unemployed. There is a notion or perception that these youth are unemployed because they are lazy, or they do not want to work.  For some of them it is a simple lack of opportunities and because they did not do well at school.  Because they are ostracised the idea of laziness is reinforced and further pushes them into other activities that are detrimental to their mental health.

UNDP Eswatini: In your research were females more affected than the males or vice versa?

Zenanile: Unfortunately, by the end of the research we had not acquired the data from the National Psychiatric Centre which would have helped us identify the most affected groups. However, from being in the field and engaging the young people, and community members, it is more the males that are affected and having a tougher time coping.  The females on the other hand are finding piecemeal jobs or fall pregnant and would have to take care of their children or marry at a young age. But, with the males, I think one observation was because of societal pressures of a man in our society. Many do not know how to handle that pressure.  We found that it is males who are struggling with the drug and substance abuse.

UNDP Eswatini: As a young Swazi, what do you feel are some of the pressing issues for the youth and how do you think we should be dealing with the youth dividend in Eswatini?

Zenanile: As a young person and with the experience from my research, I think one thing the young people want is Eswatini is to be heard. I think for a long time we have been trying to bring solutions for the young people, but we are excluding them from the dialogue and conversations. Yet, from my engagement through the research, most of them have great ideas and solutions to the problems they are facing.  So, I feel we should find ways to create platforms that young people can participate in, where they can be heard and contribute to the development of their communities. They will feel like they have a role to play.  Right now, the solutions and ideas are being imposed and the older generation are making the decisions thereby side-lining the youth.  We need to know what the young people think, what they have to say, and by doing so we are allowing them to think – giving their voice audience. More than anything involve the youth in the dialogue.

UNDP Eswatini: Mental health is not a subject everyone relates to comfortably.  How did the communities where you undertook research look upon the issue of mental health?

Zenanile: I think one of the lessons the research brought out, is that there is no real understanding of what mental health in our communities.  For example, people within the communities can see the result of depression, but they cannot pinpoint depression.  When we asked questions in the field, community members would say, we have seen people behave like “this”, but for them it was not about mental health. The communities stated other reasons like bewitchment. 

UNDP Eswatini: Did your research take into consideration mental health policy in Eswatini and do you think it is an urgent issue?

Zenanile: The policy is there however it has not been enacted, it is yet to get through parliament.  It is an urgent issue because, we need to as a country find an appreciation of the mental health of our population, so that we can get the best out of our human capital. All the investments we are making as a country in human capital development, such as free education, will be a waste if we are unable to get a return on these investments. So, as a country we need to understand the role mental health plays in our economic success.  We also need to ask deeper questions of the cost of mental health. 

UNDP Eswatini: When in the communities what were some of the creativity and innovation you heard from the youth?

Zenanile: When in the field and interviewing the youth, they mostly expressed hopelessness which made it difficult to find out the ‘positives’ that young people were involved in. I think a contributing factor to this hopelessness is the lack of role models. Because if you see people who completed school sitting with no jobs or opportunities to further their education, you then ask what’s the point? If the generation before me has not made it, then how do I stand a chance for success? The lack of role models – the people to look up to­- has also contributed to the general feeling of this hopelessness.

UNDP Eswatini: As one of the successful youths in Eswatini and having gained experience and exposure – how are you going to contribute to Eswatini?

Zenanile: A lot needs to be done and it can be done if we harness the brilliant ideas we have out there. They just need the platform for them to be born. I know that UNDP has created the Accelerator Lab which is a great platform for people to bring their ideas.  As a young citizen, I have a passion for the research I carried out and feel I can contribute through supporting mental health issues in Eswatini, especially on prevention. There are many preventative measures we can take as a country and we can do better with the support for those already struggling with mental illnesses.

UNDP Eswatini: When in the communities what were some of the pillars that could support mental health despite the myriad of challenges we have talked about so far?

Zenanile: I believe, that supporting pillars all begin in the household. I think that this is the greatest asset that we can capitalise upon as a society. I believe that the family as the primary agent of socialisation plays a huge role because that is where we learn about life.  If we can focus on strengthening the family, we are able to have stronger and healthier communities.  Unfortunately, though, with time and economic pressures among other issues, the value of the family is deteriorating. Now you find that there are many single and grandmother parented, and child headed families.  So, the structure of the family is eroding, and we need to understand the role family plays in the well-being of an individual in general. So, if we go back and invest and protect the family institution, we can capitalise a lot from it.

UNDP Eswatini: When at ESEPARC, how did your research capacities improve?

Zenanile: I gained a lot of experience and one of the lessons I learnt was working hard and being a critical thinker.  One of the key aspects I appreciated about ESEPARC was when were in the boardroom, it did not matter if you were an intern, you had something to contribute.

UNDP Eswatini: To conclude, why do you think we still need policy think tanks in Africa?

Zenanile: I think policy think tanks remain important because they can get to the ground.  One of the biggest challenges we have been having is that we have policies enacted and yet some of them do not correlate with what is happening on the ground. Policy versus reality do not meet and hence they are ineffective. In the policy development cycle especially on the onset, it is important to engage think tanks.