On a Friday night, while young teenage girls slept in their school dormitory, hell paid them a visit and not only maimed, but also claimed lives, just to prove a point.
When the girls at Moi Girls School, Nairobi, went to bed that night, it never crossed their minds that for a minute they could possibly live through the horror of the fateful night. Young, vibrant, healthy adolescents engaging in bedtime banter, changing into multi-coloured pajamas, brushing their teeth and teasing each other about being homesick.
In the wee hours of the morning, they were fighting for their lives, fleeing from a fire that was intent on killing them. Many escaped unhurt but it does not mean that they avoided the emotional trauma.
Seeing their schoolmates who sustained life-threatening burns and knowing there are those who lost their lives in the inferno, burnt beyond recognition, will leave them scarred forever. Those who escaped with injuries have to contend with both the physical and emotional scars.
It is a national disaster for children to lose their lives in the very places they are expected to be safe. It says a lot about us as a nation, none of it flattering. Trauma is the leading cause of death among adolescents worldwide. The commonest form of trauma may be from road accidents but other causes such as contact sports and violence are also contributory.
Overall, adolescents are a fairly healthy section of the population. For this very reason, their health is often overlooked until things get out of hand.
Most adolescents are deemed to have attained some level of independence hence are not as closely monitored. They develop their own lifestyles and friends whom they spend time with outside the home and more often than necessary, get into mischief.
Being out of sight from parents means that they have to report ill health to their parents or caregivers.
This could result in delays in picking up the problem and seeking care. A lot of adolescents also spend a fair part of the year away from home in boarding schools where their well-being is entrusted to total strangers.
Unless these young people have pre-existing chronic conditions that are well-documented, they are hardly taken seriously when they fall ill.
A FAILED SYSTEM
How this leaky system has existed for decades is hard to fathom. Many a times a sick teenager has been dismissed when she complained of headache, only to end up in the emergency room with severe malaria.
Or the lanky basketball player whose cough was taken lightly, only to end up with tuberculosis on oxygen support in the wards.
These cases are purely as a result of these children’s initial complaints being taken lightly by the immediate supervisors until it is too late.
As much as most parents are intimidated by the colonial setup of our school systems, they are the primary guardians of their children and must demand the opening of conversations around changing these systems. Children are voluntarily taken to boarding schools by willing parents. How did these schools turn into maximum security prisons? Why should a child be restricted from speaking to their parents for weeks?
Depression is now ranked as a leading cause of morbidity worldwide. In a world where 25 per cent of the population is thought to suffer depression, it is self-defeating to ignore that adolescents are part of that statistic. Depression is an organic illness.
We can have school counsellors and other support systems for the children but the most important thing is to recognise when an adolescent crosses the line from being a teen worrying about acne and fitting in to being a patient in need of a definitive diagnosis and attendant medical care. For this to happen, parents need to get their heads out of the sand. The adolescent children need as much attention as the toddlers. Depressive illness is a disease that requires medical attention. The myths must be broken to enable our children to have a fighting chance.
No, it is not witchcraft or curses. It is a medical condition just like asthma or diabetes. We must accept it, get help for our children and support them to live a full life. The real curse is when we ignore it and our children end up taking their own lives and in the process sometimes taking others with them.
Every adolescent must be viewed holistically. The first pillar in this triad of health is their physical well-being, the second being their mental health and the third is their sexual well-being.
Annual physical check-ups should be on the family to-do list, encouraging the young ones to speak up when they are not feeling well. Parents should not be shy to question behaviour change in their children as it may herald the onset of symptoms of mental ill health.
As adolescents grow, they are acknowledging their sexuality and it is imperative that adequate guidance is provided and their sexual health needs adequately addressed.
As adolescents transition from childhood to adulthood, there is also progressive transitioning from paediatric care into adult care in the hands of physicians, gynaecologists and other specialists.
We must aim to make this transition smooth. It is imperative that the specialists seeing the young ones for the first time go the extra mile to make them comfortable.
Adolescence is awkward for the developing child and with the self-consciousness that comes with it, one needs to be extra-sensitive during medical examinations and procedures. Parents need to provide constant reassurance and be present at all times to reinforce a sense of security and familiarity.
Our children are our future. We have invested too much to get them to adolescence. Let us not lose steam on the last lap. We must endeavour to keep them healthy and above all, safe.