Mental health is a pressing concern in South Africa especially among the youth. With limited support services and continued stigma around mental health, it can be very challenging for young people to get help. This is one of the reasons the National Department of Health, together with several NGOs, have launched the B-Wise WhatsApp chatbot. The chatbot is an innovative platform that helps young people tackle complex questions about love, mental health, sexuality, and relationships in an inexpensive and convenient way.
Through the WhatsApp chatbot, youth can access a private and non-judgmental space where they can find facts, do quizzes and receive advice to make informed decisions about their physical and mental well-being. The platform is designed to be easy to use, making mental health issues more manageable.
According to UNICEF SA, a shocking 65% of young people with mental health-related issues in South Africa did not seek help. Alarmingly, 25% of them believed their problems were not serious enough to warrant support, and many did not know where to find the help they needed. The South African Society of Psychiatrists has reported that 20% of South African high school learners have attempted to take their own lives.
Through risk questionnaires, the chatbot is able to quickly assess a user’s risk for depression or anxiety and so can help young people at high risk of mental health issues get the support they need – support that is otherwise difficult to find. While many of the interactions are automated, linking young users directly to a human counsellor is a key feature of the service.
Since therapy services typically come with a hefty price tag, many are left unable to afford the help they desperately need. While resources such as free therapy exist, they often come with administrative hurdles. In less developed areas, the shortage of psychologists exacerbates the problem, leaving young people with limited options for professional support.
Research shows that there are multiple factors that contribute to the deteriorating state of mental health among the youth in South Africa. These include the home environment, healthcare system, school and academic pressures, climate anxiety, unemployment leading to depression, and the unrealistic narratives driven by social media. The state of the economy in South Africa, particularly following the recession, has also had a profound impact on mental health. Anxiety surrounding job opportunities, skills training, and employability have become a primary cause of mental health issues among youth aged 19 to 30.
Fortunately, mental health has gradually become less taboo in recent years. While progress has been made in breaking down the stigma and cultural barriers surrounding mental health, there is still work to be done. Encouraging open conversations, promoting mental health literacy, and fostering a supportive environment are crucial steps in ensuring that South Africa’s youth receive the care they need without hesitation or judgment and to encourage users to learn more and seek advice. The chatbot has been carefully designed to engage with users in an open and non-judgemental way to encourage users to learn more and seek advice.
Addressing youth mental health requires a comprehensive approach that tackles various factors simultaneously. The B-Wise chatbot is doing its bit to support youngsters but much more is needed to reduce stigma, improve access to mental health services, and address the economic and social challenges faced by the youth, to help create a society that prioritises mental well-being.
Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who wish to try out the chatbot on WhatsApp can send the word ‘’Hi” to +27 60 071 7844 and follow the prompts to sign up.