Who can children call when in distress?

  • Children
  • Thursday, 24 Sep 2020

You've got a friend in me. Buddy Bear offers emotional support and comfort to children in distress during the pandemic. Photo: Filepic

While adults have friends, colleagues and counsellors whom they can call or chat online with for support, children have limited options on who they can go to, to get help for their problems.

It is with this in mind, that the Buddy Bear child helpline was set up by KL-based registered social enterprise, HumanKind.

Buddy Bear started operations during the movement control order (MCO) in March. It's aim was to help address the concerns of children during the pandemic and MCO. It promises a safe space where children-in-distress from the ages of six to 18, can call and talk to a safe adult about their worries and concerns, and get the support and help that they need without being judged.

Counselling psychologist and founder of HumanKind and Buddy Bear Pam Gunaratnam. Photo: Buddy BearCounselling psychologist and founder of HumanKind and Buddy Bear Pam Gunaratnam. Photo: Buddy Bear“The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about drastic changes in the lives of both adults and children. Stuck at home, the support system that children have relied on before the pandemic – friends and peers, play and sports, teachers and school – have all been removed from the equation, ” says HumanKind and Buddy Bear founder Pam Guneratnam.

“Buddy Bear was created to meet this need – to give children a safe space to talk about their worries and concerns to an adult who is trained to listen to these children in a way that they feel supported and empowered, ” Guneratnam explains.

Now that the recovery MCO has been extended until end-December, there are issues that children may face as they return to school since the danger of Covid-19 is far from over.

“As children return to school during the new normal, we’ve seen an increase in the number of adjustment issues and refusals to go to school, ” Guneratnam says.

“Some children’s daily routines are so different and without structure while home bound that they have become nocturnal, and as such, waking up early for school and getting back into that routine has been a challenge.

“There’s also the anxiety of catching the virus and all the rules of social distancing which can make a child feel overwhelmed, especially if parents have used fear to frighten the child to get them to follow safety guidelines, ” she adds.

Filling a need

Association of Toy Libraries Malaysia president and Childline Foundation Malaysia founder Datin PH Wong. Photo: The Star/Art ChenAssociation of Toy Libraries Malaysia president and Childline Foundation Malaysia founder Datin PH Wong. Photo: The Star/Art ChenChildline Foundation Malaysia founder Datin PH Wong reveals that worldwide statistics show that the child helplines have seen a 30% - 40% increase in calls dealing with emotional health issues such as depression, loneliness and self-harm. And the calls are from children as young as five years old.

“Most adult helplines are already too busy handling adult cases, and they need to see to urgent basic needs such as food and support for families during the pandemic, so they may not have time, nor be trained, to deal with children’s emotional needs, ” Wong explains.

“Adults already know what they are going to ask for when they call, but usually children don’t know. They will call to see whether they can trust you before revealing what’s troubling them. It’s normal for children to ‘test call’ (not prank call) by calling about five times and hanging up before actually speaking, ” says Wong who is an advisor and specialist trainer on child protection and safety at Buddy Bear.

Dr Anita Codati, a Fellow in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Tunku Azizah Women and Children’s Hospital, Kuala Lumpur, who was speaking at the launch of Buddy Bear, gave an overview of the issues children have been facing during the pandemic.

“Children face a range of issues – whether online, offline or school-related – such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, substance abuse or addiction to internet and gadgets, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and domestic and child abuse.

“Those who are marginalised – such as refugees and migrants, urban and rural poor – are more heavily impacted which could lead to behavioral and conduct issues. The lack of connectedness, especially during the MCO and conditional MCO period, with these children missing school, has just made things worse," says Codati.

Buddy Bear hopes to improve the social and emotional well-being of children in underserved and vulnerable communities.

Guneratnam reaffirms that child protection and safety are of utmost importance to Buddy Bear and as such, all volunteers are trained specifically to listen to children. They are also taught how to help children identify and express their feelings and give voice to their experiences. All volunteers are also trained in psychological first aid, supervised by registered mental health professionals, and committed towards providing a responsible and ethical phone line for children.

“Volunteers are screened and interviewed personally. They attend training in child protection and children’s rights, and are put in teams with mental health professionals. Background checks are also conducted on the volunteers to make sure they are not on the child offenders’ list," she says.

Reaching those in need

Psychiatrist Dr Anita Codati. Photo: Buddy BearPsychiatrist Dr Anita Codati. Photo: Buddy BearGuneratnam reveals that HumanKind’s work with marginalised and low income groups shows that children from these communities are at greater risk of negative experiences and have less options for support.

“Parents can so distracted and stressed by financial woes and basic survival needs that they may easily neglect the emotional needs of children who are anxious and afraid because of the pandemic.

“Also, for some children, home is not a safe place: they may be trapped in a home where they are subject to physical, emotional or sexual abuse by household members, ” says Guneratnam.

According to Wong, urban children face a high level of stress during the pandemic, especially those living in PPR flats where space is confined and their movements are restricted.

“The PJ Child Council (a programme by the PJ City Council to make the city more child friendly) surveyed 500 children in the city and discovered that many of them don’t have access to health facilities. About 40% can’t talk to their parents so they usually talk to their friends instead. But during the MCO, that wasn’t possible because there was no school, they couldn’t meet and it was difficult to call,” Wong reveals.

“They’re also not used to e-learning and many don’t even have access to electronic devices and risk being left behind in their studies if the pandemic stretches on for one to two years more," she says.

From the calls to the helpline, Guneratnam surmises that the pandemic has caused many children to feel lonely, isolated and like they have nowhere to turn to.​​​​​​
"They struggle with questions and concerns about the well being of their family members, ” says Guneratnam.

“One child shared that a loved one was depressed, and they felt helpless. Parents’ worries and fights over family finances are also a concern as children are sensitive and easily pick up on their parents’ anxiety, ” she cites as examples.

An important role of child helplines is in empowering the child to be able to ask for help and the pandemic has brought to light that such a dedicated child helpline is necessary.

“In other global disasters such as earthquakes or floods, there is support and love, people congregate as a community. People can go to safe zones and reach out to those in need. They can rebuild their lives because the disaster has come and gone. But how do you rebuild, when you don’t know when it will end?” Codati says.

“During the pandemic, people are forced to be apart rather than in a community and for those who aren’t connected to social media and the internet, their psychological needs aren’t met, ” she adds.

To contact Buddy Bear, children can dial: 1-800-18-BEAR (1-800-18-2327). Volunteers are available every day from 12pm (noon) to 12am (midnight). They speak English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil. More info is available at: www.facebook.com/buddybear.humankind/

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