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United Way Blog

Mental Health Education Opens Opportunities in South Africa

A popular saying says opportunity knocks when you’re prepared. But for youth from low-income families, the barriers to success after high school can seem unsurmountable. The knowledge, resources, and support required for success in life may not always be readily available. How to enable opportunities in this context? 

For United Way South Africa, its youth success program, called Providing Equal Educational Opportunity for the Youth, has been part of the community-based solution providing a path forward for youth from disadvantaged communities. That's why United Way has expanded this program since its inception in 2021, to serve the KwaZulu Natal province.

The experience of one young man, 12th grader Bevan Thomas, illustrates the opportunity – and the difference it can make.  Bevan was one of the almost 1,000 students in Clairwood Secondary School benefiting from the expanded program. The school is located in a disadvantaged community in the Ethekwini Montclair region.

The program seeks to equip students with the knowledge, experiences, and tools to make informed curriculum choices, improve their grades, and clearly understand the requirements needed to access higher education and career opportunities. Its focus: skills assessment, soft skills, spaces for improving performance, motivational support, and mental health. 

Mental health is a critical element in successful learning, but too often overlooked. Advancing mental health in the learning environment, United Way's program addresses stress management, emotional resilience, and the importance of seeking professional help when needed. It also creates a community of support, in which students can discuss and get help with mental health challenges. The project’s supporters include advocates like Louisa Zondo, author of Dearest MaRiky: A Mother’s Journey through Grief, Trauma and Healing.

All students participating in the program went through mental health education and skills assessment followed, by a career fair which offered 9th graders and employers a chance to meet and establish professional relationships. It was also a platform to discuss potential careers, jobs, scholarships, and leadership opportunities. Some 300 students took advantage of the opportunity to connect with different organizations career paths such as health science, engineering, finance and accounting, logistics, information technology, military, education, humanities, safety and security, hospitality, aviation, arts and culture, and business management.

With this comprehensive and sustained support, Bevan graduated with distinctions and got a scholarship that paid for college. Bevan is now in his third year of studying engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and preparing for his mid-year examinations.

Last year, a follow-up session with students at Clairwood and Tembisa (Ivory Park), focused on mental health. This session included professionals from various disciplines, including the police, to provide comprehensive support.

Throughout this process, a key lesson learned for the local United Way team was the importance of continuous engagement and support. Providing regular mental health workshops and accessible resources has been crucial. For parents, schools, and communities, a valuable tip is to create a safe and non-judgmental environment where young people feel comfortable sharing 
their feelings and concerns.

This article is written in collaboration with Welsh Dube, who provides communications and 
marketing support for United Way South Africa.