International research study to look at depression among unemployed African youth

12th February 2024

By: Schalk Burger

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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A research study to examine the network of risk factors and resilience resources that predict depression among not in employment, education or training (NEET) youth in Africa will be undertaken by the University of Pretoria (UP) and the South African Medical Research Council; the University of Ibadan, in Nigeria; the universities of Leicester and Nottingham, in the UK; and Dalhousie University, in Canada.

Across Africa, one in five youths are NEET. In Nigeria and South Africa, at least one in three youths is NEET, or 36.7% and 34.3% respectively. This high number makes African youth disproportionately vulnerable to depression, the universities said.

“Thousands of young people across the continent are battling mental health issues such as depression. Challenges, such as poverty, make young people more vulnerable to mental illness,” they said.

The study titled ‘Protecting African youth who are NEET against depression: An investigation of differentially impactful, multi-systemic resilience enablers’ was facilitated through a £5-million research support organisation Wellcome Discovery grant.

The research will help to identify combinations of resources that offset risk factors and thereby enable people working in the field to put resource combinations in place to help, said UP Educational Psychology researcher Professor Linda Theron, who will lead the study.

Depression and resilience to depression are not studied closely enough in African youth populations, she said.

“It is difficult to manage depression in contexts like Africa, where mental health services are limited. If we do not get to transform the current limited understanding of Africa’s youth resilience to depression, Africa and its global partners will be hard-pressed to realise the potential dividends of a rapidly growing population of African youth.

“It is a complex study and challenging to measure multisystemic factors at the same time. However, we are pioneering a methodology, and we are confident we can do it. There is too little understanding of which combination of resources can support young people to do well in life, especially in Africa.

“This work is vital to pre-empting depression and informing precision interventions tailored to the needs of African youth who are NEET,” she said.

“The study will look at psychological, physiological, biological, structural and physical ecology resources. Most researchers have in the past solely concentrated on one or two of these systems during their resilience studies. However, these do not consider how factors across systems combine to support youth to be okay when life is relentlessly difficult.

“We have to move forward from these incomplete studies and find a more complete response to vulnerable communities where we find these youth,” she noted.

The research team members are world leaders in studying multisystemic resilience and youth well-being, but do not know which precise combination of physical, psychological, social, institutional, and environmental risks and resources predicts stable, low or improving versus chronic, high or worsening depression trajectories among African youth.

Further, once the study’s results illuminate the combination of resources that works best, it will provide service providers, such as mental health professionals, with the know-how to approach mental health differently using multi-systemic thinking, she added.

“The study demonstrates the importance of supporting discovery research in social science. There is a clear need to improve our understanding of the physical, social and environmental factors that predict depression, particularly in young people,” said Wellcome Discovery research head Morag Foreman.

“We hope the impact of this approach will provide mental health professionals with a better understanding of how to support young people across Africa, especially to those in the most vulnerable communities,” she said.

The 66-month study comprises two phases. Phase 1 will follow 1 600 young people aged 18 to 24 who are based in stressed communities in South Africa’s Gauteng province and Nigeria’s Niger Delta. This phase will take a closer look at NEET youths’ physical, psychological, social, ecological, and economic risks and resources.

“We chose these two locations because both countries have elevated levels of stressed communities. One- or two-dimensional resilience studies have been done in other African countries before, but it is the first time Africa’s youth are the sole focus of multi-systemic research,” Theron added.

Further, Phase 2 will focus on the 500 young adults who reported the highest risks and lowest depression compared to those who reported the highest risks and highest depression.

“This phase will include the study of anthropometric indicators such as stress hormone levels, lung capacity and physical well-being; environmental factors like air quality, noise levels and temperature; and psychosocial factors like, political, social and cultural contexts,” she said.

“Africa’s youth population is growing exponentially, and everyone is excited about it, but there are challenges to this potential, so we have to rein in the excitement. We need cutting-edge studies to boost young people’s wellbeing for the benefit of our continent and the world.”

This study will help redress the dominance of Western accounts of youth resilience, she noted.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online



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