Prioritise mental and emotional needs of children in country’s recovery plan

Across virtually every key measure of childhood, progress has gone backward in the 12 months since the pandemic was declared, leaving children confronting a devastating and distorted new normal, says Unicef. Photo:

Ten-year-old Nurfaraiin is terrified of losing her parents to the coronavirus. Every day when her father, a delivery service rider, and mother who is a cleaner, leave for work, Nurfaraiin cries. She is afraid they will come home with the virus, be taken away to the hospital and die.

“Nowadays, she cries a lot, ” says her mother, Nora, 39. “She follows me around the house and when I have to leave for work, that’s when she starts crying. She says she’s afraid I won’t come back.”

News about the number of cases and Covid-19 deaths every day and the constant reminder to follow SOPs have made the little one anxious. Her anxiety is worsened by the isolation of staying home from school and not being allowed to play with her friends for many months now.

“She says she has no friends. She has not been able to join online classes much because we both take our phones to work, ” says Nora.

Children, like Nurfaraiin, are feeling the impact of the pandemic because their lives have changed so drastically because of the pandemic and the different iterations of the movement control order over the last 15 months.

According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), How The Covid-19 Pandemic Has Scarred The World’s Children, at least one in seven children and young people around the world lived under stay-at-home policies for most of 2020, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the lives of families around the world. Across virtually every key measure of childhood, progress has gone backward in the 12 months since the pandemic was declared, leaving children confronting a devastating and distorted new normal, ” the report stated.

The impact on children, says play therapist and child advocate Madeleine Yong, cannot be ignored. The psycho-social health and well-being of children must be prioritised in the country’s pandemic recovery plan.

“Children are anxious, they are scared and they need help, ” says Yong, co-founder of children’s therapy centre, Power of Play. She is also the co-founder of children’s rights NGO, Protect and Save the Children.

“Many are anxious about the virus and some have developed obsessive compulsive behaviours such as washing their hands constantly because they worry about catching the virus.”

“The government must look into the psycho-social needs of all children. There isn’t one plan that will work for all children as they all have different needs. Bring in a multidisciplinary group of professionals (who work with children) to deal with children’s issues and train counsellors in national schools to conduct psycho-social programmes for children because they are going to need support, ” she says.

Late last year, Yong was part of a programme that provided psycho- social support to B40 families. Funded by Yayasan Hasanah and the Finance Ministry, the programme was conducted jointly by Women of Will, an NGO that empowers women, Sols Health (a non-profit mental health centre) and Power of Play. Yong provided psycho-social support for the children.

In Malaysia, Unicef Malaysia, child protection agency Child Frontiers and the Malaysian Association of Social Workers studied the impact of the pandemic on children, particularly from vulnerable groups (low- income families, those who live in remote and indigenous districts, and children in migrant and refugee communities).

Their report, Understanding The Impact Of Covid-19 On Vulnerable Children & Families In Malaysia, found that Malaysian children have been seriously impacted by the pandemic, and “some groups of children and families were more seriously affected than others”.

Even during the recovery MCO phases, many children didn't go outdoors because they were terrified of the virus. Some are afraid they'd lose their parents. Photo: Azhar Mahfof/The StarEven during the recovery MCO phases, many children didn't go outdoors because they were terrified of the virus. Some are afraid they'd lose their parents. Photo: Azhar Mahfof/The Star

A difficult transition

While the pandemic has had an impact on all children, the disadvantaged and vulnerable have been hit the hardest.

Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK) centre manager and social worker Ratna Dewi Raja Kamal Vadiveloo says that the closure of children’s activity centres throughout the pandemic combined with the closure of schools and recreation facilities, such as community playgrounds, have led to feelings of depression and loneliness among children.

“In Chow Kit, there are no parks or playgrounds. The nearest would-be Lake Gardens or Taman Tasik Titiwangsa which, during the MCO periods, are off limits to them. Some children and teenagers have had to take care of their siblings, cook and clean while their parents go out to work.

“For many, especially those in remote areas, schooling for the past year was completely cut off. Many had no devices, unstable or no Internet connection or electricity supply. For those who did return to classes after the MCO was lifted last year, social workers noticed signs of depression among some, and they needed counselling.

“Being confined at home, family stress and financial losses suffered by parents are the main stressors, causing children and young people to feel unhappy and worried, ” says Ratna Dewi.

“Some, due to family constraints, have also had to help their parents with the family business or do odd jobs to help the family. This added to their stress and anxiety as they feel they are being left behind.

“They may end up losing interest in classes and drop out of school which will just perpetuate the cycle of poverty, ” says Ratna Dewi.

YCK provides homeschooling for children who are not able to attend government school. And like most schools, its lessons have gone online. But there are challenges.

“The government needs to understand the challenges faced by different communities and come up with practical ways to help each for the long term.

“Rather than one-off solutions like giving out devices, what about a follow-up on how they can use the devices, how to top up, how to download apps that are used in school and so on. They are often overlooked but are so important, ” says Ratna Dewi.

Make mental health a priority

Clinical psychologist Liana Mohd Nawi says that parents need to check in with their children to make sure that they are coping with the changes around them.

“We’ve been seeing that children have a lot of worries, feelings of loneliness, nervousness and some are irritable.

“Some find it hard to concentrate mostly because of the long hours in front of the screen, not just for their online classes but also playing online games, the only way they can connect with their friends. Children are also bored, ” says Liana from Sols Health, who works largely with children from low-income families.

“Parents need to check in with their kids regularly. Give them the space to share how they are feeling and don’t brush their feelings off. If they tell you they are scared, acknowledge their feelings and talk about it. Ask them what might make them feel better.

“If they are scared about the virus, find out what the child understands about the virus. Encourage questions and don’t brush aside their fears by telling them ‘everything will be alright’.

“We need to be honest but don’t offer too much information that may make them anxious. If you don’t know the answer, be truthful and maybe look for the information together, ” she says.

For children with severe anxiety or depression, Liana suggests seeking mental health services because, if not dealt with early, these feelings could have long-term effects.

However, while mental health services offered by public hospitals are still available, much of the public health service has been focused on the Covid-19 crisis.

“So for families from lower income groups, options are now limited. And, they don’t have the resources to pay for private mental health services. Also, for many of them their priority is putting food on the table.

“This is where employers and companies must play their part, ” she says.

“Even though it’s not an easy time for many businesses, we cannot expect the government to do everything as they too are stretched to the limit. Companies need to step up and maybe allocate funds for employees and their families to seek mental health services if they need it, ” says Liana.

The absence of therapy throughout the pandemic has had a huge impact of children with special needs and their parents. Photo: ROSA MARIA GALVANThe absence of therapy throughout the pandemic has had a huge impact of children with special needs and their parents. Photo: ROSA MARIA GALVAN

Children with special needs

For children with special needs, the MCO and lockdown meant missing therapy sessions which are crucial to their development.

“There are some types of therapies that can be done online... provided you have an Internet connection. But there are other therapies, like occupational therapies for sensory integration or physio therapy where the occupational therapist has to be there. Some parents have learnt to do some therapy with their children, but not all.

“Some parents have noticed their children regressing which is frustrating for both the parents and also the children who find themselves not being able to do tasks that they could before. Honestly, these are concerns that keep parents up at night, ” says Rosa Maria Galvan, from the ND Support Group for parents with special needs children.

Rosa admits that there have been positive outcomes from being under the MCO: many parents have had to educate themselves about different therapies for their children and have been working with their kids. Their support group has also become stronger and the community of parents and therapists are communicating closely, leading some parents to discover therapies that work better for their children.

However, the lingering worry about the virus has been prohibitive.

“The biggest worry for parents with special needs children is their health. Many have compromised immune systems and so parents are extra cautious about exposing them to the risk of contracting Covid-19.

“This is especially with children who are non-verbal or have limited verbal and communication skills. Parents worry that even if they are feeling unwell, they won’t be able to tell anyone. And so, they stay at home, ” says Rosa, whose son, Alex, is epileptic.

As the country navigates its recovery, Rosa hopes that the emotional and psychological needs of children and parents will be prioritised.

“We will definitely need emotional and psychological support as we recover from the pandemic.

“Some children, like Alex, are really scared of the Covid-19 virus. Alex has read articles about how the virus can have neurological effects even upon recovery and he is aware that he has neurological problems.

“These children with special needs will also have to be reassessed to see if they have regressed and then, prioritise therapy for them.

“In some ways, I think we all need to be rewired because something like this pandemic is something nobody has ever been through before, ” she concludes.

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