Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
THE abuse of contraceptives by teenagers, some as young as 14, is what is on my mind today.
I am worried because high intake of contraceptives has been cited as one of the causes of mental illness in adolescent girls.
One out of four girls aged between 14 and 19 in Zambia are being treated for mental illness at Chainama Hills Hospital due to high consumption of contraceptives.
Chainama Hills Hospital public relations officer George Tafuna told this newspaper that contraceptives could lead to mental illness when taken at a tender age.
He explained that the pills have a tendency to reduce a chemical in the brain called serotonin, resulting in depression and eventually mental illness, especially thoughts of suicide.
Mr Tafuna further said oral contraceptives taken during adolescence have a long-lasting effect on users.
“One out of every four Zambian girls aged between 14 and 19 abuses contraceptives and this makes them suffer from mental illness and are treated at the hospital almost every month,” Mr Tafuna told Christine Chihame.
Can you imagine, there are teenage girls being treated for mental illness at Chainama Hills Hospital every month because of the contraceptives they could have been taking.
Well, I am curious to know why some girls who are using contraceptives are suffering mental illness, when adult users don’t suffer such side effects.
Could it be that they are taking overdose, or they are too young for the drugs that they are being given in health facilities or perhaps buying in drugstores?
This is something that reproductive health care specialists should take an interest in and investigate why young users of contraceptives are reacting that way.
I don’t support contraceptive use among schoolgirls, but if the drugs they are using are going to put their mental health at risk, we need to establish why this is happening.
Most certainly, even the parents of teenagers that are being treated at Chainama Hills Hospital for mental disorders may not be in support of what the girls are doing.
But that won’t stop some girls from using these contraceptives, which their friends are reacting to.
If parents could prevail over the decisions and choices that children make, obviously the girls would be abstaining from sex until they get married.
Every parent wishes that their child should first get an education, then get a trade and later find a niche either in business or the world of work, before getting sexually active.
Actually parents do not just want to see their children ending at being sexually active with every Jim and Jack.
They would rather see them settle down with a spouse and, God willing, start at a family.
The reason is that high-risk sexual behaviour has a lot of negative effects on both individual and public health.
The repercussions are worse for young girls because it draws them away from their education and also makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Sexual chastity is actually a biblical requirement, but alas, some children tend to make sexual debuts earlier than anyone could ever imagine.
The high prevalence of teen pregnancies, abortions and contraceptive use, as a matter of fact, suggests that some of the children in our homes and communities are not as innocent as we think.
As a result, health care facilities have taken the route of providing reproductive health services such as contraceptive and safe abortions to these children.
Youth-friendly corners have been created in some public health facilities where girls could procure reproductive health services without being judged.
Of course the services include the provision of contraceptives and safe abortions to the youth.
However, this is a controversial issue because the girls are allowed to procure abortion or contraceptive services without the consent of their parents.
There is also a firm belief that girls of nowadays are making early sexual debuts because contraceptives, including condoms, are now within easy reach.
Caregivers say they can’t send the girls away because doing so is as good as endorsing the death of a life they could otherwise save.
A health care provider I talked to a few days ago defended youth friendly corners, saying girls who visit their centres are already sexually active.
“When they come, it means there is ‘something’ that they are doing,” she said.
She said they have got girls as young as 13 visiting their centres, mainly to get contraceptives and sometimes to terminate their pregnancies.
The girls are counselled in a ‘youth friendly’ manner and then allowed to make their own choices.
Normally girls who seek contraceptives are told about the side effects too. Actually that’s what caregivers concentrate on, according to my source of information.
However, most girls insist that they want to go for it anyway, because they are already sexually active.
So health care providers will go ahead and dispense contraceptives to the girls after counselling them.
Abortion services, I am told, are now not available in foreign -funded projects because the United States, which was a major benefactor, is no longer funding such services.
Health caregivers say a negative attitude from health staff will not cow a girl from dating whoever she is seeing, nor dissuade her from having unsafe sex.
Information from the grapevine indicates that contraceptives are given to girls aged 15 and above, or younger girls who have children.
The reproductive health caregiver says society should not blame them for giving contraceptives to young girls, because the buck falls at parents to stop their children from engaging in risky sexual behaviour.
Some children are escorted to the youth friendly corners by their parents to go and get contraceptives.
Some parents say, “Here she is, I have brought her because I have failed.”
This means that some parents are fully aware that their girls are taking contraceptives, but their interest is in preventing unwanted pregnancies.
From what I gathered, some children may be experiencing mental illness because they are taking overdose of the contraceptives.
Perhaps they feel that high intake could guarantee prevention of an unwanted pregnancy.
Then there is the issue of the pills being too strong for adolescents because of their young age.
Much as health care providers may argue that they are providing reproductive health services to teenagers for a good cause, they ought to take into count the concerns of Chainama Hills Hospital.
They need to investigate the reason why one out of four teen girls who are being treated for mental illness at Chainama Hills Hospital are those taking contraceptives.
I also expect Chainama hospital to circulate this information within the health system so that remedial measures could be taken.
Who knows, maybe the contraceptives being used are not suitable for girls in that age group.
Perhaps it’s not just about the girls taking an overdose of the pill, but rather their body systems not being fully developed to process contraceptives. And what’s worse is the prolonged use of contraceptives by young girls and the side effects that this could have on their health. From the little that I know, contraceptives come with certain side effects if used for a very long time.
And today’s teenagers who make early sexual debuts are at greater risk of suffering side effects in future than those who delay sexual activity.
I hope that this information is being made available to teenagers when they visit health care centres so that they could make ‘informed’ decisions.
On second thought, though, girls aged between 13 and 17 cannot even make an informed decision about their reproductive health because they are children.
But, sadly, some are already sexually active and making decisions in matters of abortion and contraceptive use.
Perhaps, reproductive health caregivers should bring parents on board when dealing with cases of girls this young.
It would be very sad if parents are informed about it too late or when something has gone wrong.
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Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA