Parents Must Be Proactive In Understanding & Assessing Their Children's Mental Wellbeing

Unfortunately, most parents fail to spot the signs of mental illnesses in their children due to the lack of mental health awareness.

As an educationist involved with the running of two schools – Aditya Birla World Academy and The Aditya Birla Integrated School, I’ve had the first-hand experience of seeing students face an entire gamut of mental health concerns. Children are fragile and their complicated eco-systems can easily fall prey to a host of behavioural, emotional, learning or mental disorders.

It is alarming that psychological concerns in children in India are on the rise, especially behavioural issues and suicides. 12 per cent of Indian students between the age of 4 and 16 suffer from psychiatric disorders, out of which two to five per cent have serious concerns like autism or bipolar disorders. Shockingly, every one hour a student commits suicide in India.

Educational institutions definitely have a big responsibility in regards to the mental wellbeing of their students. But how proactive parents are in understanding and assessing their children’s mental health makes the early difference.

Unfortunately, most parents fail to spot the signs of mental illnesses in their children due to the lack of mental health awareness. Add to this, at times, it is difficult to distinguish between the signs of a mental concern and what has traditionally been called ‘normal childhood behaviour’.

And even when red flags are spotted, so many parents get into denial mode – My child has no such problem! This is due to the overwhelming stigma attached to mental concerns in India, even amongst the highly educated sections. In fact, children fall prey to the stigma of mental concerns primarily because their parents do so before them. To truly help their children, parents must make a conscientious effort to fight the stigmas associated with mental health, in order to eradicate them from society.

It is critical that parents approach the mental health of their children with empathy and concern. They must understand that there exist a wide range of environmental challenges

and underlying causes that can lead to a variety of mental health issues. Parents must understand and come to terms with the realities of the present generation. They face far more challenges than the parents did when they were growing up.

Mental health awareness workshops and programs are the immediate need of the hour in schools and in the community, and the involvement of parents in these workshops is absolute. Parents must become equipped to spot and red-flag signs of mental issues in their children: a sudden decline in academic performance; lack of motivation; variations in behaviour and mood; outbursts of anger and hostility; disciplinary issues; drastic changes in sleep patterns or appetite; an overwhelmingly negative or pessimistic approach to life; sudden withdrawal from family, friends and peers; and talking, surfing or writing about taking one’s life.

What is important to note is that children can be afflicted by the same mental disorders as adults, but their symptoms may be drastically different. For example, in the case of depression, adults tend to express sadness while children show more irritability. The real reason behind a student’s difficulties with concentration and learning may actually be ADHD.

Discrimination, body-shaming, bullying-related trauma, sexual challenges, emotional issues, low self-esteem, family or financial problems, substance addiction, and even hormonal changes can result in depression or anxiety disorders and their ilk. Often, children are afraid to talk to their parents about them. It is the parents’ duty to instil trust and confidence in their children so that they can speak openly about their issues.

Depression and bipolar disorders can be genetic and may manifest themselves during childhood itself, just as diabetes or asthma can. If there is a history of such issues in the family, parents must be constantly vigilant for the signs and symptoms in their children.

Pressure from parents to do well at studies and in exams and living up to society’s unrealistically high expectations can cause deep-rooted anxiety in children. What parents fail to often see is that not all students learn in the same way. Some are naturally gifted while others learn slowly. Some students are not academically gifted or inclined and need to learn in a different way.

Parents need to understand that treatment of and recovery from mental health concerns are definitely possible through counselling, therapy and medication. Timely identification, diagnosis and treatment are, however, imperative to achieve this. And while doing so, one must not forget that every child’s coping mechanism is different. Hence, counselling must cater individually and specifically to the need of every child.

At the same time, those parents who are willing to seek help for their children often don’t know where to go. Mental health care is not so easily available in India. Besides the stigma, the scary prospect of antipsychotic medications or the logistical and financial challenges involved get in the way of seeking help. A more open-minded approach to mental health is already overdue. We need the right policies, guidelines and infrastructure to cater to the care of our young minds.

It is the duty of parents to ensure the holistic development of their child – on a physical, emotional and mental level. Mental wellbeing is the key to unlocking the unlimited potential in every child, in ensuring that they can live their life to the fullest. Which is why mental health concerns cannot be ignored or go overlooked anymore.

Our mantra proactively needs to be: It’s OKAY to not be OKAY! It is OKAY to be mentally ill, but it is NOT OKAY to NOT seek help.