We have all seen those airline safety instruction videos which tell us to wear our own oxygen masks first before we help others, especially children who may not know how to handle the emergency, right? The reasoning is that if an adult guardian blacked out, there would be a gap in the caring of the child during the crisis.
Turns out this is true of real life also. While adults waffle on about the challenges of WFH and the trauma of supervising their child’s online school hours, children have been quietly facing perhaps the worst mental health crisis not linked to wartime.
New research posted by the Unicef says more than 330 million youngsters have been stuck at home for at least nine months, since the pandemic began. This has left them feeling isolated, afraid and anxious about their future. Worse, such anxieties set the foundation for mental disorders developing before the age of 15 – did you know that the majority of the 800,000 people who die by suicide annually, are under-18s?
Way back in the late 1990s, a motivational spiritual speaker was addressing a family gathering in Bahrain. It was just before exams and parents had brought along their children so they could benefit from wisdom on scheduling their study break and planning their future.
To their horror, the speaker began with the ominous words, “Let’s talk about suicide.” An angry murmur of dissent went through the crowd as parents protested that this was an inappropriate topic. Calmly, the speaker said he would change the topic if his quick introductory question was answered in the negative: How many of the youth there had ever thought of suicide as a way out? Imagine the shock of the parents when more than 70 per cent of the children hesitantly put up their hands.
Often parents simply do not know what their children are going through and this is especially true of Asian parents who tend to micro manage their children’s lives with elaborate plans for their future, what they should study, friends they can hang out with, etc. This is not to say other parents know better – just that the reasons for their losing touch with their children’s reality are different. After all, too much supervision can be as damaging as a lack of it!
Women victims of abuse have rightly been given the protective support of NGOs and authorities since many find themselves sharing the lockdown with their abusers. Sadly, we are not talking enough about children in similar positions. The problem is also that for children, abuse can come disguised as care.
One child, barely in her teens, who was living in her home country with her grandparents for years, returned to join her parents. She found that she was expected to bear the brunt of housework and nanny duty to her toddler brother for her working parents and cracked under the pressure. Without anybody to confide in, she is said to have gone into a depression and attempted self-harm. She was lucky – community volunteers got her the psychiatric support she desperately needed before it was too late.
We can no longer continue to pretend that mental health issues only affect adults or that merely ‘good parenting’ can fix these problems. Parents too need expert help to unknot their children’s mental health issues and the first step is to dismantle the stigma attached to therapy and psychiatric support for children and youth. We urgently need to rewrite the template for child and adolescent mental health beyond the first circle of community hotlines and volunteer counselling.