Mental illness not recipe for youth violence

Wednesday May 23 2018

It is also true that most people with mental disorders live most of their lives without any episodes of violence. PHOTO| FOTOSEARCH

Q What are tell-tale signs of mental breakdown among adolescents? My neighbour’s son recently suffered a massive mental breakdown and turned violent. A psychiatrist blamed the parents for failing to pick up the signs in good time.

Just so that we get rid of one important misconception you seem to hold, let me state the following; most violence in the world is committed by people who do not suffer from any form of mental illness.

It is also true that most people with mental disorders live most of their lives without any episodes of violence.

Indeed, it also true that persons with mental disorders are often victims of violence (not perpetrators).

The notion that links mental illness with violence is part of the stigma (read ignorance) that is most pervasive and is made worse by popular media, including the film industry.

It would seem that your neighbour was waiting for a violent episode from his son to enable him make a diagnosis of mental illness.


A book we published a few years ago (What is wrong with this child) might be a useful starting point for you to understand what you call tell tale signs of mental illness in adolescence.

Last year, we came across a number of boys and girls who might help us better understand how to approach (or not approach) an adolescent with a mental health need.

The first was a girl who was rather young for the type of presentation. She had first approached her mother and told her that she thought she needed to see a psychiatrist.

Quite rightly, her mother asked her why she felt she needed this type of help. She told her mother about her problems sleeping at night, her constant feeling of sadness as well as feelings of low self esteem.

She explained that her grades in school had fallen rapidly and she felt that life was no longer worth living. She had Googled all the symptoms and had concluded that what she was suffering from was called “Teen Depression” and a psychiatrist could help turn her life around.

After an initial shock and disbelief, there followed a period of intense prayer as the mother sought forgiveness from the girl and God, for whatever she might have done wrong to “cause” her daughter so much suffering. She then asked a friend who asked a friend, and finally the girl was seen by a psychiatrist.


The diagnosis of teen depression was made, she was treated in a private psychiatric clinic and within two months she was back at the top of her class.

Her confidence in class and in sports came back and both the mother and the school stood proud in their community on account of the fact that they had recognised the depression in time and the girl was back to normal life.

The other girl was older, but her story was similar. At the age of 16, she had begun to lose concentration in class. Her friends said she had become moody and irritable and a boy she liked dropped her because she had become too demanding of his time.

She kept crying like a baby, and talked about death all the time. When the boy met her a year earlier, he had been attracted by what he called her moon face which was always glowing. Both her eyes and hair seemed to enhance her smile and beauty. Even in her school uniform she seemed clean, neat, mature and “lovely” as he put it.

Things changed in the last three months. She had become a stranger. Her face and hair were in a total mess. She did not seem to have a glow and looked and sounded like an old woman.

The teachers had noticed the drop in her grades and had called the parents in “to give the girl a final warning”. She was a clever girl who had become lazy.


The father was not spared either. He found her rude, withdrawn, and argumentative and finally banned her from all social media as it was the cause of her terribly changed behaviour.

The parents turned to the church where a “diagnosis” of demon possession was made, to be “cured” by a very complex cleansing ceremony.

We came across her in the emergency room of a local hospital. She had taken a major overdose of her mother’s antidepressants and was in intensive care for several days. The diagnosis was the same as the first girl but the presentation was completely different.

As with life in general, each human being comes to the psychiatrist through different routes!