The emotional wellbeing of a person is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.
It's a misconception that childhood is a carefree, trouble-free period in our lives.
Studies show that 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year; 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24. In our country, mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young adults. One in every five school-going children shows signs of some kind of a mental health condition. Concerns are not always what is stereotypically acknowledged as a "mental health condition": many children and teenagers experience rage, anger or conduct issues and may (and do) experiment with harmful substances such as alcohol and drugs. More children today are anxious, depressed or stressed due to changing social mores and an increasingly competitive environment.
There are certain risk factors that make some children and young people more likely to experience problems than others. While the existence of these factors doesn't necessarily mean difficulties are bound to come up, they can often adversely affect the mental well-being of an individual, such that they may not always be able to cope independently. These risk factors can include:
- Having a parent who has suffered from mental health problems or an illness, substance abuse or has been in trouble with the law.
- Experiencing the death of a parent or someone close.
- Having parents who separate, divorce or have severe marital conflict.
- Having been bullied or physically, emotionally or sexually abused.
- Living in poverty or being homeless or suffering severe financial losses.
- Experiencing discrimination, perhaps because of race, sexuality or religion.
- Having long-standing educational difficulties or a specific learning disability.
- Substance abuse.
- Having a long-term, chronic or terminal illness.
It's a misconception that childhood is a carefree, trouble-free period in our lives. How many children can express that they worry about peer acceptance, not being invited by friends for birthday parties, being cyber-bullied, scoring low marks in an examination, or parental expectations?
Children and adolescents are far more vulnerable and susceptible to psychological and emotional problems than any other age group. Grown-ups often forget that most adult-child relationships have some form of power asymmetry built into them, which is often disempowering for the child—speaking up and challenging the norm can be very difficult for them. Children and young people also do not have developed coping mechanisms, strategies, or problem solving capabilities. As a result, children often feel they cannot generate a solution to solve the perceived problem or don't have the strength or support to do so.
This can be a frightening and frustrating state of affairs to live through day after day and, untended, can result in feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness.
Grown-ups often forget that most adult-child relationships have some form of power asymmetry built into them, which is often disempowering for the child...
As many as 10% of children and young people aged 5-16 worldwide have a clinically diagnosable mental problem. Yet, 70% of those who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
Assumptions that this is a passing phase or a result of a weak mind, or fear of being judged or perceived as having a mental problem, discourages timely intervention. Myths and misconceptions about psychiatric and psychological treatments and medications also deter families from seeking help. Many parents feel that psychiatric medications are harmful and have long-term side effects. They also feel that these medications cause dependency and have to be taken for life once they've been started. Many times, parents and caregivers want a quick fix and fail to recognize that counselling, therapy and, in fact, most treatments, are effective but treatment periods can vary from a few weeks to months.
What must we do?
First and foremost, as parents we need to act in a timely manner and keep emotional judgement at bay. Getting timely professional guidance, an accurate diagnosis and initiating early treatment can be extremely powerful in the recovery path, prognosis and progress of a child's mental health condition.
While there are challenges with identifying credible help— India has very few child psychiatrists, statistics show that there is only one psychiatrist for every four lakh Indians—having faith in your mental health professional is crucial. Also, a multi-disciplinary team approach can alleviate concerns arising from insecurity about one professional's judgement. A good practice is to seek consultation with a child/adolescent psychiatrist, child psychologist (clinical or counselling psychologist) or a school counsellor.
Being patient is crucial with mental health. It takes a while for children and young people (and adults, for that matter) to build a rapport and have trust or faith in their therapist, especially when they are already feeling a certain way. Building that professional and confidential bond so that they may feel safe, secure, accepted and not judged is crucial to the child's recovery and progress.
Timely interventions have been found to lead to extremely good outcomes in children and young people. As informed, educated individuals, it is our prerogative to create more awareness about the importance of mental health and to do away with misinformation and prejudices that keep people from seeking help. Our actions today will ensure that our next generation are happy and secure individuals, who lead more productive and meaningful lives.