Children's Mental Health In The Aftermath Of The Covid-19 Pandemic
Being confined within the defined space of one’s home, children are unable to expend their pent-up energy through any physical activities.
Roohi Sharma (6) cries each evening because she is not allowed to go down to the park to play on the swings. In another family, Amit Kumar (17), a high-school student based out of Delhi, is constantly at loggerheads with his parents over his waning interest in his online classes, as he spends hours playing games on his Xbox.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically disrupted numerous lives across the globe, inducing massive change in the social, psychological, and physiological facets of human behaviour. On one hand there have been recurring deaths and economic losses, silently giving rise to emotional crisis, confusion, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and fear on the contrary.
While adults have been dealing with the various challenges imposed by the pandemic, the pandemic has had many children undergo life-altering experiences that directly or indirectly cause an unfavourable impact on their mental wellness—be it the irreplaceable loss of loved ones or living amidst persistent domestic violence or family discord, and much more to suppress their healthy, natural instincts.
Impact on children’s mental health – key observations
Toddlers to grade-schoolers (1 – 12 years)
Children, especially 5 years and below, are unable to comprehend the reason behind self-quarantines, lockdowns, and no outdoor activities, despite caregivers providing them with a simplistic explanation of the situation so as to quell the anguish. Further, many children are beginning to experience unexplained physical health issues stemming from mental stress, such as, a headache, body pain, muscle tension, fever, insomnia, restlessness, ailments like Pollakiuria (frequent daytime urination syndrome).
Also, being confined within the defined space of one’s home, children are unable to expend their pent-up energy through any physical activities and end up indulging in unproductive activities such as over-consumption of television content or developing destructive habits. With no or limited interaction with children of their age, the formative years that are absolutely crucial for the development of a child’s social, cognitive, and emotional skills are getting deeply impacted.
School-going children are facing issues in grasping lessons through virtual classes even as those who are just entering the education life such as pre-schoolers do not have any idea of the concept of a school, teachers, or school friends. Instead, they have been introduced to these concepts in the digital space. Not only does this affect skill development, because nothing matches up to classroom learning—which is more personlized—but also leads to physical health issues such as developing poor eyesight or headaches.
Teenagers and young adults
Teenage is all about exploring life in various aspects. However, mental health of youths in this category is being majorly affected as their minds are more cognizant of the gloom shrouding the environment, which also comes through discussions among elders within the domestic space. Their vulnerability to negative emotions is quick to result in personality changes like becoming introvert or suppressive, over dependence, temperamental aggression, often manifesting into clinical levels of depression, suicidal tendencies, paranoia, and so forth.
Moreover, with revamping of the education model and rising cases delaying career-impacting examinations such as board examinations or final year of graduation, students are highly stressed and anxious as their career-related decisions are put on hold indefinitely, accentuating uncertainty.
Possible remedies to support children’s mental wellbeing
Parents or caregivers play the most influential role in a child’s life. A parent is the child’s first and lifelong teacher who guides, supports, and stands by him/her through thick and thin. The onus of creating and maintaining a positive, pleasant and supportive home environment falls on them. Also, elders have an important role to play in helping children maintain a disciplined routine as much as possible, including school/learning as well as time for safely playing and relaxing.
Further, the importance of ‘listening’ should not be underrated; it is essential that parents be proactive listeners. For example, if a child talks about feeling low, loss of appetite, or feeling hopeless, it is vital that parents delve deep into the reasons underpinning those feelings to provide assurance and prevent the child from feeling depressed or taking drastic measures.
Although it is not easy to explain the severity of the virus to young children, elders must try to elucidate the same exemplifying to them the necessity of safety precautions like masking, quarantining, sanitizing, etc. in a simple way, without inducing fear in their minds.
The healthcare ecosystem needs to step up and establish stronger mental wellness infrastructure. Times have changed and it is imperative that healthcare professionals actively work towards removing the stigma attached to mental health services for children.
The private sector also has an important role here. Organizations can establish hotlines/online support groups to provide online support services for children and adults. Case in point, Rotary in has set up PAN India projects such as ‘Mental Wellbeing’ and ‘Project Positive Health (PPH)-Stop Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD)’ that offer counselling and other services to those in need. The Mental Wellbeing project provides a mental well-being helpline with the sole objective of addressing the rising distress due to pay cuts, job losses, family issues or violence triggered by the pandemic in six vernacular languages for Indians residing within and outside the country. The NCD project aids to tackle the root causes for the burgeoning number of deaths due to NCDs in the country.
Other players like educational institutions can tie up with hospitals / medical fraternity / NGOs, individual medical specialists for conducting webinars and counselling sessions for their students. Recently, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) launched a mobile-based app ‘CBSE Dost for Life’ to offer psychological counselling for students and parents as the disruptions in the education ecosystem caused by the pandemic has created immense upheaval for students. Schools are seen to offer free education to students who have lost the sole breadwinner of the family to COVID-19 — as one of the several initiatives being undertaken while the second wave of the pandemic wreaked havoc across the nation.
The Indian Government has announced a INR 10 lakh fund, free education and other benefits to those who have lost their parent/sole earning member to COVID. It is also playing a major role in rehabilitating under-aged children who have lost both their parents to COVID and do not have any surviving relatives.
The way ahead on a note of hope
The pandemic has underpinned the importance of empathy, acceptance and care for oneself as well as for others. It has also made us reassess our priorities regarding the mental wellbeing of our children that could have a deep impact on the choices they make, today and tomorrow. It is therefore absolutely crucial to address this silent threat with urgency in order to prevent mental health from becoming the next pandemic!
About the author -
Dr Prakriti Poddar is a mental health champion and member, Rotary Club of Bombay responsible for setting up toll-free PAN India helpline 18001210980 in March 2020.
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