South African children lack psychosocial support. ‘Every school needs a social worker’

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A shallow focus shot of people wearing the same uniform and standing in a line

Social workers, researchers and teachers are desperate for more psychosocial support for children and adolescents in South Africa. They say it’s a “no-brainer” that every school needs a social worker. 

The issue of mental illness among learners has made recent headlines. The Gauteng Department of Education has recorded more that 40 cases of suicides in the provinces’ schools since the beginning of the 2023 academic year. 

About 20% of children younger than 18 who visited  a mental health facility in 2019 and 2020 had a mental illness, according to a 2022 report by Statistics South Africa. 

“It makes me feel desperate to make a difference, to do something about the situation,” says Dr Rita Sonko-Najjemb, director of the Body Mind Wellness Clinic in Pretoria.  

She’s the lead author of a 2019 study surveying 3 417 learners in 25 schools in the Eastern Cape. The survey found that 17.6% or 600 learners had suicidal ideation. Of those considering suicide, 73.7% had made plans to end their lives. 

Stretched resources 

School social workers are the go-to resource for public schools to refer cases of children struggling with learning, behavioural concerns and other mental health conditions. 

Most school social workers are employed at the district or provincial level. There are a total of 606 school social workers in South Africa, according to the March report of the Social Service Workforce obtained by Health-e News from the Department of Basic Education.

This means that every 23 000 students get one school social worker, based on the South African Government’s 2021 estimation of 14 million students in the public school system. Meanwhile, reportedly 9 000 social workers are unemployed in South Africa in 2022. 

The Department of Basic Education employs 2 907 school-based learner support agents, according to the March report. They monitor children’s well-being and refer cases to the social worker. 

There’s a chronic backlog in responding to referral cases from one week to three months by school social workers, depending on the emergency level, according to Nqabakazi April. She is  a social worker who takes care of more than 5 000 students in the Joe Gqabi district in Eastern Cape.

Capacity to only react,  not prevent

Karabo Balopedi is responsible for more than 8 000 learners in the West Rand district in Gauteng. In the second quarter of 2022, Balopedi says 13 attempted suicide incidents were reported in two months in the 10 schools that he was in charge of. In the worst week, he received three cases of attempted suicides. 

“I was stuck because it was overwhelming. Once I deal with one case, the next one comes. You are still trying to figure out interventions for one child, then you get another one who’s in a worse condition,” he recalls. “It got to a point where I was like, I’m tired. I’m not coping.” 

If each school has a social worker, Balopedi says they would be able to monitor the interventions and progress of learners. He says his priorities always shift due to the huge caseload and he cannot follow up with every intervention.

“How do you keep up with the cases? How do you check and evaluate? If there’s progress, how do you change your intervention when you only see that kid once every two to three months? I honestly feel like we need to have one station with two to five schools. If the budget allows, I’d say one social worker for every school,” says Balopedi.

‘An environment of hopelessness and helplessness

Balopedi says a lot of the children he encounters grow up without a social support structure. According to Child Gauge’s 2021 report, 19.7% of children in South Africa live without a parent and only a third of children live with both parents. 

“You look at the environment they are in. This is an environment of hopelessness and helplessness. You have kids who have to become their own parents. It just pushes the learner to the breaking point,” says Balopedi.

The University of Johannesburg conducted a series of research projects exploring strategies to improve children’s well-being. From 2020, they placed social workers in five schools to collect data and conduct interventions targeting early-grade learners from six to eight years old for seven months. 

Bongiwe Somdaka is a school social worker appointed to Lejoeleputsoa primary school as part of the project from March 2023. The school is a public school located in MeadowlandEeast, a suburb of Soweto.

The school’s Head of Department for the foundation phase (grade R to 3) Julia Tsogodibane says the school has had no electricity for more than a year and most children are taken care of by their grandparents or close relatives as their parents seek jobs elsewhere.

Somdaka observes that because children go through traumatic experiences at home such as abuse, neglect or family fighting, they come to school with anger issues. 

Teachers, says Somdaka, are struggling to deal with these “misbehaving” children because they cannot get hold of parents. 

Unemployed social workers

Somdaka stresses that there are 9 000 unemployed social workers available to be placed in schools to help prevent learners from committing suicide or dropping out of school. 

She graduated in 2018 and had been unemployed until she was recruited to be part of a research project at the University of Johannesburg. But she will have to start another round of job searching at the end of her contract. 

“I have been applying. I don’t know how many times I have applied. I don’t know how many times I used the application form”, says Somdaka. 

“The schools need a full-time social worker. It’s a no-brainer. It’s not only for the children or teachers. It’s for community members as well. It’s for parents. It will be a solution to many problems.” – Health-e News


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