Mental Health: Prioritising children and adolescents

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 11 Oct 2020

Policymakers can play a proactive role with all stakeholders to expand mental health infrastructure for all children, particularly B40 and rural communities, building on the bipartisan consensus on this issue.

WORLD Mental Health Day comes at a time of unprecedented crisis and stressors brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic this year. The virus has not only transformed how we function in society, but also impacted on our individual and collective psychological well-being. In fact, the emotional impacts of the virus have raised concerns that the next pandemic is mental health challenges.

Though the virus itself poses greater health risks for older populations, emotional ramifications may stand to affect younger people more. This is because dependent children and adolescents are often confronting their own emotional stressors alongside that of their parents in this pandemic. The adverse consequences are worse as their traditional school support system has been severely disrupted due to lockdown restrictions.

Negative impacts

There are various stressors resulting from the pandemic affecting children and adolescents across every age group. Foremost, there is widespread anxiety due to the fear of contracting the virus and harming themselves or family members, particularly as elderly grandparents often live under the same roof in Asian families. Add to this the general uncertainty facing older adolescents – youth – about future university and work plans.

Moreover, young students have an uphill task adjusting to online learning methods that challenge their traditional teacher-student-peer interactions, which is further accentuated by the digital divide impeding data access in the B40 economic group. Not only that, children and adolescents have limited playtime, sports and physical activities with peers in public places due to physical distancing rules. This may lead to their growing sense of isolation and detachment from traditional support systems.

In many cases, children and adolescents have to bear the brunt of their parents’ financial hardships, frustrations and distress arising from the pandemic. This may include exposure to interfamilial conflicts and anger at home, sometimes resulting in neglect, abuse and aggression against minors. The pandemic further disrupts their healthy upbringing by increasing the risk of violence by adults.

Long-term effects

Children and adolescents have inalienable rights for physical and mental health, safety and protection, and education and playtime, all of which are threatened by the pandemic. The long-term adverse effects of emotional stressors can undermine their success in the community- school, workplace and society. Indeed, their unresolved emotional distress amidst the crisis today raises the risk of future mental health disorders.

Mental health challenges in adulthood often have origins in developmental years, including troubled childhood and adolescents. Many social problems we face today arguably have intergenerational backgrounds, for instance, witnessing and experiencing physical abuse within the family by individuals during earlier years increases risks of perpetrating intimate partner violence later in life. Similarly, violence and extremism often have childhood and adolescence history.

In this backdrop, we have a social responsibility to promote the emotional well-being of children for their current and future happiness. The healthy upbringing of children prioritising their safety, needs and welfare can lead to a more peaceful and prosperous society in the long-term. This raises the question: What can we do as a society?

“Whole of society” approach

This pandemic has further exacerbated prevailing academic, interpersonal, family and cyber bullying stressors causing stress, anxiety and depression among Malaysian children and adolescents. The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 found 424,000 children suffer from mental health problems, including one in 10 children aged between 10 and 15 years. Another study revealed increasing suicide risks affecting secondary school students as early as Form 1.

Given the scale of the “hidden pandemic” affecting children, there is no alternative but for a whole-of-society approach focusing on both preventive and reactive interventions to address the crisis. Mental health practitioners must prioritise children and adolescent-friendly services, creative, expressive and play therapies, and psychological first aid-based helplines and online support dedicated to children to help them creatively explore their emotions and coping skills. It is also important to work with parents, schools and community groups for an overall supportive and enabling environment.

This can help parents foster a supportive environment for emotional expression and help-seeking at home, including listening and acknowledging feelings beyond meeting the physical needs of children. Schools may help students cope with stressors better by adapting teaching styles, offering safe emotional spaces within classrooms, and improved services for diagnosis and referrals. In addition, community groups involving social workers can play a preventive role by working together with mental health practitioners in improving mental health literacy through parenting workshops and peer assistance groups focusing on children.

Prioritising children

World Mental Health Day 2020 emphasises on accessibility with the message of “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access.” The whole-of-society approach bringing together mental health practitioners, parents, schools and community groups supporting children and adolescents will need to be reinforced by the government for greater awareness, accessibility and affordability. Policymakers can play a proactive role with all stakeholders to expand mental health infrastructure for all children, particularly B40 and rural communities, building on the bipartisan consensus on this issue.

We must adopt evidence-based policy formulation, advocacy and intervention to reverse the mental health crisis facing Malaysian children and adolescents. The pandemic has heightened the need for urgent action – we must remember the future of our nation depends on the emotional state of children today and tomorrow. Happy World Mental Health Day!

Dr Arman Rashid is a political analyst-turned-mental health practitioner. He is project manager of HumanKind Buddy Bear, Malaysia’s only child-dedicated helpline during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Buddy Bear helpline operates from 12 noon to 12 midnight, seven days a week, with volunteers who can speak Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin, and Tamil. To speak to Buddy Bear, children can call 1-800-18-BEAR (1-800-18-2327).

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