Students need ‘right support’ for good mental health, experts say

Psychosocial support: Close cooperation between parents, teachers and mental health professionals is crucial for timely interventions.

AS Malaysia learns to live with Covid-19, it is crucial that youths have access to mental health support.

After almost a year of coping with the stress of the pandemic, vulnerable groups – particularly students – are in need of attention to help them overcome the many learning and emotional challenges they have had to weather.

Marital and Family Therapy Association Malaysia vice-president Bawany Chinapan said students suffering from mental health issues must be treated with compassion – not prejudice and stigma.Bawany: Parents must be aware of the different developmental needs of their children.Bawany: Parents must be aware of the different developmental needs of their children.

They need access to psychosocial support through the country’s primary care system, she stressed. “It is important to address their issues delicately and confidentially so that they are not seen as a problem but as individuals who need care,” she said, adding that school counsellors, who may not be trained to handle cases of depression, must reach out to mental health professionals when confronted with such cases.

Bawany, who is a HELP University senior lecturer and couples and family therapist, advised parents and the community to stay calm when speaking to these students.

Be firm but gentle even if the student is throwing a tantrum, she said, while explaining that it is also good for adults to acknowledge their feelings.

“If you are also feeling distressed and have difficulties being calm, it can be helpful to acknowledge how you feel to your children and show that you would like to work with them through it.

“By doing this, you are showing them that they can also express themselves and ask for help when in distress.

“When faced with actions that rub you the wrong way, take a breather and manage your emotional reaction – especially anger.

“Keep cool. Refrain from scolding, shouting or threatening.

“Don’t remind them of all the negative consequences of not doing something. Instead, encourage and build a growth mindset.

“As parents, it helps if we can regulate our own emotions as we instil discipline, rules or boundaries in our children,” she shared.

Children from a nurturing and supportive environment, said Bawany, grow into psychologically healthy individuals.

It is important for parents to be aware of the different developmental needs of their children as they grow up to become young adults, she added.

Positive emotions, appropriate behaviour and constructive responses, she said, are helpful for their well-being as emotionally healthy parents produce emotionally validated children.

Many parents have unrealistically high expectations of their children and are obsessed with academic achievements. This, said Bawany, can result in children feeling like they are not good enough and can never measure up to their parents’ expectations.Society, she said, must start to see counselling as an important part of one’s well-being.

Mental health issues, she added, must be addressed before they affect how one functions.

As humans, we have to manoeuvre and manage challenges through many developmental stages of life.

Lack of interest in their studies may be a reflection of family issues students are facing at home.

With the right care and understanding, these students can become valuable talents who can contribute to nation building, said Bawany.

Universiti Malaya Faculty of Education, Educational Psychology and Counselling department head Dr Mohd Nazri Abdul Rahman said communities should organise more inclusive activities to allow for interaction between members so that those who are not coping well can get the attention they need.

Parents too, he said, must be more involved with their children.“Pay attention to any changes in their behaviour. Be more open with them, give them the space to pour their hearts out and listen to everything that they have to say.

“Students, on the other hand, should avoid posting too much about their emotional state on social media and discuss such issues with their families instead.”In September, an online survey by Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Social and Policy Studies, conducted among 520 youths aged between 16 and 30, showed that 85% of the respondents were emotionally stressed due to Covid-19, mainly due to the fear of being infected by the virus, and challenges linked to online lessons and working from home.

The “Life Under Covid-19 for Children Online: Values & Challenges (2021)” survey, jointly conducted by Digi Telecommunications and Sunway University, echoed the findings.

Almost half of the 1,746 respondents aged below 21 indicated that they were unable to experience positivity in life, with 44% experiencing mild to extremely severe perceived depressive symptoms.

The situation was equally alarming in schools where a mental health screening conducted by the Education and Health Ministries between June and August revealed that 100,000 of 818,430 Years Five and Six primary school pupils were at risk of suffering from sadness, depression and lack of interest in their studies.

Dr Mohanraj: The pandemic will likely have a long-term impact on a majority of schoolgoing children.Dr Mohanraj: The pandemic will likely have a long-term impact on a majority of schoolgoing children.

Malaysian Mental Health Association president and consultant psychiatrist Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said the Covid-19 pandemic will likely have a long-term impact on a majority of schoolgoing children because they have lost out on the normal development phase for a significant period of their lives.

His patient’s nine-year-old daughter, for example, was upset she could not go to school and was confused over the frequent change in policies regarding their return. The primary school pupil, he said, found it difficult to study online, slept poorly, threw tantrums and was withdrawn.

“She also felt guilty that she was not vaccinated, compared to her parents and older siblings, and constantly felt she might unknowingly infect the family.

“Her condition has affected the whole family as her parents too are emotional and anxious,” he said, noting that while schools had been back in session since October, the partial re-entry came with strict restrictions which prevented full reintegration among students. Reconnecting with friends, he said, is vital in helping students gain a sense of normalcy.

However, there could be stress and anxiety associated with this process after a prolonged absence from school.

He said many students, especially schoolgoing ones, would have gotten used to being on their own and studying online from home, and that the adjustment to a normal school routine may take time, with some exhibiting signs of separation anxiety.

Reintegrating and adapting to normalcy should be done gradually, he said, with teachers watching out not just for signs of prolonged sadness or poor social skills, but also irritability and tantrums.“Teachers must be empowered to detect psychological distress in the early stages of development at school.

“Some cases may need the expertise of mental health professionals,” he said, adding that close cooperation between parents and teachers is crucial to facilitate timely interventions.

Focus on the positive aspects of returning to schools and universities, he advised parents and students. Take your children’s concerns and worries seriously, and patiently address them.

“Parents should spend some time with their children to go through the various scenarios that could take place in school and even at the university level, to prevent overwhelming feelings of uncertainties.

“As children take emotional cues from adults, parents need to remain calm and not appear overly anxious in their presence.”

Dr Mohanraj explained that it is also vital for teachers and lecturers to work closely with parents to ensure students get the most appropriate attention and treatment.

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