The importance of normalising mental health conversations in Cape Town

Stijn Co-founder of Little Lions interacting with kids within the community in the Little Lions mini van

Salt Digital Recruitment have partnered with Little Lions Child Coaching in South Africa for 2021 to help raise funds and awareness of their free mental health care and workshops they provide to children (8 – 13 years old) living in different communities in Cape Town.

Stijn de Leeuw, founder of Little Lions Coaching has written this guest blog on how Little Lions Child Coaching began, why it is vital for communities in Cape Town, what Little Lions do, and normalising difficult conversations.

In 2018 I moved to Cape Town, South Africa to start my research at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Prior to that, I finished my degree in Clinical Developmental Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and worked as a child psychologist in Amsterdam. My research at UCT led me to two disadvantaged communities (also called townships) about an hour drive from Cape Town. The transformation from working in a clinic with predominantly white, upper-class clients in Amsterdam, to being in the field in these two townships was immense. It quickly became evident that mental health support was lacking, but also, that mental health support was not really needed. At least, that’s what I was told.

 The first few months I learned some basic facts about life and survival in these townships: poverty is the norm and violence is rife. The children are not being spared. A lot of children grow up having to face emotional and physical abuse, and are surrounded by community violence.  I remember vividly when I first spoke to some mothers as part of my research and questions such as: “has your child ever heard gun shots?”, “has your child ever seen a dead body on the streets?”, or “has your child ever seen grown-ups hit each other in your house?” were very normal. It had never crossed my mind to ask these kinds of questions to my Dutch clients, yet now these questions seemed more relevant than ever and most of all, mothers shared their stories without any visible emotion. My researcher-heart started beating a bit faster and my exploration continued.

How is it possible that these shocking circumstances during a child’s early developmental years do not seem to have a bigger effect? How come these mothers are able to tell me about their traumatic experiences without having an (apparent) emotional reaction?

Well, first of all most children tend to show great natural resilience skills. Whenever life had something difficult in store for them, it seemed like they were able to bounce back relatively easy. Because let’s face it, problems like poverty, AIDS and community violence are chronic adversities. Meaning they are simply there every day, all day. Nothing new to worry about for these children. Yet, the apparent absence of an emotional reaction to these stories made me dig a bit deeper and ask more questions.

What became clear was that most mothers do not talk to their children about emotions. A much-heard phrase was ‘boys do not cry’. But it isn’t because the mothers are unwilling to talk to their children about the difficult times they are facing, but they simply do not know how.

Most of these mothers are the sole providers for their families, with the majority of men absent from their duty as a parent. Mothers need to work, cook, look after the family and extended family and look after themselves. Talking about feelings is simply not a priority. With a reported lack of time, and a lack of knowledge, and perhaps also a lack of urgency, I felt like raising mental health awareness might just not be as important as I thought (and hoped) it would be, in these communities.

But the Moms soon proved me wrong.

First, I decided to look for some background information to learn more about the almost 4 million people that live in several disadvantaged communities in and around Cape Town. In the majority of these townships, psychological support is completely lacking. But because poverty and violence are strong influencers in the daily life of South African children, easily accessible psychological help would be of great benefit. However,  South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 does not mention how they plan on supporting basic mental health, let alone a plan on how to help this very vulnerable age-group. Of the national health budget, only a meagre 1% is dedicated for mental healthcare, which is almost entirely dedicated to hospitals and crisis-centres. Meaning, that when you are feeling really low and need help, the only place for you to go would be the psych ward.

This evidently leads to people neglecting their mental health needs. With proper access to public mental health services being so limited, this next sad statistic confirms how bad things are.

The importance of normalising mental health conversations in Cape Town

South Africa has an astonishingly high number of suicide cases: almost 23 deaths by suicide are recorded per day, which totals almost 8000 cases a year. This statistic puts South Africa 8th worldwide when it comes to yearly suicide cases. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in teenagers in the 15-19 age group, according to the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (Sadag). 

I invited 20 moms for a very informal chat. These moms all lived in Khayelitsha (the largest township of Cape Town, with more than one million people living in very challenging conditions). My goal was to find out more about their perspective on mental health and its relevance in these disadvantaged communities.

I quickly realised that these women all had their fair share of traumatic experiences and that there is a big taboo on sharing these experiences. According to them, it felt inappropriate to discuss your feelings. Another woman mentioned that this was also their normal way of life; something bad happened, but life goes on and there is no social or formal security net to fall back on. Mouths need to be fed, so sitting and crying because your 11-year-old son got killed by a stray bullet in a gang fight does not put food on the table. The ladies said it was a generational issue, as their parents would also not talk about their emotions.

And then, there was the problem of language. The predominant language in a lot of townships is isiXhosa (one of 11 national languages in South Africa, famously known for its click sounds).

In isiXhosa, there simply are no words to describe certain basic feelings and emotions. A translation for the word ‘depression’ for instance, does not even exist.

How do you start a conversation about mental health, or just general wellbeing, when your language does not provide you the words to do so?

However, something beautiful happened. One of the ladies opened up and shared her story of how she got infected by HIV, how this had affected her relationship with her family and how she was now in an abusive relationship with the man who had given her HIV. As she was telling this story, tears were rolling down her face. The other women got up, comforted her, started asking questions and reassured her that they would be there for her.

When I asked the group how it felt to share these feelings amongst each other, most women mentioned they were surprised by their own strength to do so. And actually, they wondered if I could tell them some more about this ‘depression-thing’. They had all heard about it, were absolutely convinced they had ‘it’, but had no clue what it meant. This was the first proper, open conversation about mental health that had happened for these women, and this was only the start.

Little Lions and opening up the conversation

With this information fresh in my mind, and with the conversations that took place with different moms, I decided to start Little Lions Child Coaching in 2019. My goal was to make sure that children from disadvantaged communities would not end up in a psych ward or crisis centre and to make sure that these children would learn some tools that could serve as a buffer against future challenges.

Our vision at Little Lions is that every child between 8-13 years old from an underprivileged community in South Africa, has grown their resilience, confidence and emotional awareness by joining one of our workshops.

These workshops are a fun and active way to get mental health conversations going. They are conducted by locally educated role models and facilitators. In groups of 10-15 children at a time, over a month, children are able to discover their own strengths and learn what the difference is between being physically strong and mentally strong. They literally fill their own ‘resilience toolbox’ with tools on how to deal with future problems.

The importance of normalising mental health conversations in Cape Town

Little Lions is creating easily accessible and safe places for children to learn about their mental health. We deliver our workshops literally on street corners, making sure we drive to the children rather than having them travel to us.

A street corner is all we need: being outside, sharing our stories and popping out some chairs from the back of our minivan is enough to get the workshop going.

The importance of normalising mental health conversations in Cape Town

 What’s next? 

The response so far has been great and our data shows that we are making an impact in the life of our little lions.

We believe it is all about changing their mindset; about showing children that they can be agents of their own change. Also, by upskilling and inspiring young community members to become role models and spokespersons, that share their experiences and show leadership, we spark a change.

Our coaches all share our vision, and see the need to start talking about mental health. The importance of normalising mental health conversation is something that needs attention worldwide, but in a country with such challenging conditions like South Africa, having active spokespersons starting those conversations is a dire need.

The importance of normalising mental health conversations in Cape Town

Many challenges remain obviously, however, for now we just try our best to get this future generation prepped and ready to take the world by storm.

 To read more about Little Lions and the amazing work they are doing, go to their website and follow them on Instagram

There are opportunities for you to be part of that change in normalising mental health conversations, by offering your knowledge, expertise and financial support. If you would like to know how you can be part of our Little Lions Ambassador Programme, just simply send a ‘YES’ to

View more in this topic here: Mental Health Archives • We Love Salt – UK

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Stijn Co-founder of Little Lions interacting with kids within the community in the Little Lions mini van

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