By Shumita Kakkar
Every day in a hundred small ways our children ask,
“Do you hear me?”
“Do you see me?”
“Do I matter?”
Their behavior often reflects our response.”
~ L.R. Knost
Our abilities to think properly, take decisions, communication and behaviour are directly governed by our mental health. The subject of mental health, however, doesn’t get much attention in India with the focus even lower on children. The National Mental Health Survey of India (2015-2016) had estimated that nearly 7.3 per cent of Indian adolescents (13-17 years) suffer from mental health problems.
One of the biggest challenges in identifying mental health issues in children is usually the fact that childhood is a time of constant behavioural changes and developments. Depending on their age, many children fail to express the reason behind their behaviour and actions. Add social stigma and bullying to that, and they usually end up not talking about their feelings and mental condition. In many cases, even parents refrain from seeking support for their children in a bid to avoid social stigma and isolation.
The prevalence of mental health problems has only increased with the spread of COVID-19 infection; and because they are spending more time at home, children are facing a lot of emotional and mental challenges. Parents need to pay attention to the behaviour, habits and other mental health indicators to identify whether the child needs support. The first and most important thing is to understand the various common mental health disorders among children.
Anxiety: Anxiety problems among children usually manifest in the form of fears and worries that reduce their ability to play, participate in school activities or have usual interactions with other children. They might be suffering from social anxiety, OCDs or general anxiety.
ADHD: A lot of children face challenges related to attention, unpredictable behaviour, hyperactivity, etc.
Eating and sleeping disorders: It is not unusual for children to become obsessed with a particular body type, losing weight or binge-eating. They may obsess about eating or not consuming a specific type of food item and such behaviours can lead to physical deficiencies, inability to perform certain tasks and even social inactivity. Due to the pandemic, children are spending almost all their time at home with excessive screen-time. This can lead to withdrawal symptoms and various psychological issues caused by gaming on smartphones. In some children, it can also manifest as Schizophrenia as they remain occupied in the virtual world for many hours.
Depression and mood swings: Depression is when the child starts to consistently feel sad and disinterested in activities. This leads to them becoming withdrawn and less interactive at school. Extreme mood swings and emotional distress can also lead to bipolar disorder.
ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological problem which affects toddlers under the age of three. This makes it difficult for the child to communicate and interact with others.
Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD): Long-term emotional discomfort, anxiety, nightmares and unpleasant memories caused by physical abuse, illness, injury, bereavement or any form of bullying and violence can lead to long-term emotional distress.
By continuously monitoring the actions and behaviour of their children, parents can spot some of the common mental health disorder symptoms such as:
* Continuously being unhappy (two weeks or more)
* Showing lack of interest or avoiding interactions
* Inflicting injury on self or talking about doing so
* Suicidal tendencies
* Discussion on death
* Inexplicable outbursts and short-tempered behaviour
* Uncontrollable anger
* Sudden behavioural changes or change of habits
* Weight loss
* Lack of appetite
* Headaches or stomach aches
* Decline of academic performance
* Lack of concentration
In case any of the above symptoms or patterns are identified, parents should consult a doctor. Today, there are digital platforms available which offer relevant guidance and support. In case parents don’t want to disclose their child’s identity, but wish to get information about their mental condition, these platforms help in doing so anonymously, too. If after discussion, observation and testing, a child is diagnosed with a mental health issue, parents must ensure the kid gets adequate professional support. There are two primary ways in which medical professionals like doctors, psychiatrists or psychotherapists will treat the child: psychotherapy and medication (in cases where it is absolutely needed).
Mental health in children is crucial and such disorders should be prevented or treated with the right attention, guidance, encouragement as well as timely professional intervention. Parents need to ensure children are not subjected to any abusive, anti-social or discriminatory behaviour at home. They must also try and spend quality family time where the child gets to enjoy with them and learn new things. The most effective step that all parents need to take is to continuously motivate and support their children and help them develop self-belief in a responsible and sustainable manner!
(The writer is the founder of United We Care)