Youth need help to cope with life challenges

When University of Nairobi students recently took to the streets to protest against alleged malpractices in their union elections, media houses were quick to highlight the seeming recklessness of a generation that is self-absorbed in notions of self-importance and entitlement.

Social media was awash with comments decrying a failure of judgment by a group of people privileged to be at the university. That institutions continue to indulge these students came out in the commentaries as puzzling, only helped by the belated decision by the management of the University of Nairobi to close the institution indefinitely.

Some commentators even suggested that the behaviour of these students mirrored that of our politicians, some of whom had, only days earlier, disrupted parliamentary proceedings.

What happened to change the orientation and perceptions of university students from their old image as conscientious advocates of social justice and human liberty to seemingly irrational bullies with a penchant for destruction?

In the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi eras, university students were almost always at the forefront of the struggle for civil liberties and other dividends of democracy. Indeed, several former student leaders have gone on to positions of national leadership.

If these students have grown up witnessing blatant disregard for and abuse of institutions, how can we expect them to respect these same institutions, or even rely on them for arbitration?

If we spared time to think about this trend among university students, we might realise that their behaviour points to a deeper problem — that of inadequate psycho-social health. If we accept the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, then we see why our youth are not that healthy.

This is not to excuse their behaviour, but rather to exhort us to address the larger problem that is widespread in society. The youth are faced with even deeper challenges than they may be aware of.

They lack adequate psycho-social or soft skills, leading to their inability to deal with and manage personal growth problems such as self-discipline, frustration and anger, impatience, anxiety, self-esteem, and lack of fulfilment.

When a young person is faced with any or all of these challenges, his/her instinct to seek group validation and attention can be overwhelming. That is why, even though they know that what they are doing is wrong, they will not stop because it enables them to conform to the concept they have of what it means to be a university student.

What society needs to do is address the real problems — poor psycho-social wellbeing.

It is important that we intervene at an early stage and help this generation to realise that what is wrong in society is also wrong in their smaller communities. They should also be given opportunities to acquire soft skills to enable them to deal with personal frustration in a productive way rather than harming others in the name of self-expression.

I am sure that no-one wants to mould our youth into self-absorbed, individualistic, and selfish individuals. Part of our responsibility is to continuously equip our young people with the knowledge and tools to enable them to make informed choices and acquire healthy, responsible behaviour and life skills.

That way, we shall appreciate our youth as an inexhaustible source of ideas, energy, and optimism. They have the potential to build a world that is inclusive and compassionate.

It is not enough to condemn their destructive behaviour; it is even better to empower them to overcome the inadequacies that make them vulnerable to peer pressure.