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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

Youth in distress: A conversation can heal mental wounds

Experts say parents also need counseling as half the battle can be won at home if they befriend their children and keep an eye out for any warning signals. Teachers can do the same in schools.

punjab Updated: Oct 11, 2017 12:13 IST
Mukesh Rawat & Nidhi Wadhwa
Mukesh Rawat & Nidhi Wadhwa
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
20% of world’s children and adolescents have mental health issues.
20% of world’s children and adolescents have mental health issues.(Shutterstock)

Adolescence is called a period of storm and stress. Happy-go-lucky children turn into brooding teens; sensitive, emotional, and opinionated by turns. Little wonder that a 2015 study by doctors of Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, (PGIMER), Chandigarh, found that nearly one-fourth (23.5%) of the teenagers surveyed had thought seriously of running away from home, while half (54%) were worried about problems at home.

Trouble spots at home and school, be it parental discord, domestic violence, shaming, corporal punishment, ragging, or alcoholism, leave a lifelong scar on a young person’s psyche.

Mental health issues like depression, warns World Health Organisation (WHO), also increase a youngster’s predilection to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, among others. It warns: “If untreated, these conditions severely influence children’s development, their educational attainments and their potential to live fulfilling and productive lives.”

A case study

Three years ago, Manu Chopra (name changed), then a Class 9 student at a reputed school in Chandigarh, developed breathing complications and restlessness along with fluctuating blood pressure.

When his marks dipped, he approached his teacher, who referred him to the school’s student counsellor. The counselling sessions spanning over a month, found that Manu’s parents were on the verge of separation.

Shangrila Dubey, who counselled him, counselled his parents about the effect their discord was having on Manu’s health. She also roped in the extended family. The counseling worked and today Manu is in Class 12 and is performing well.

5 key points
  • 50% of mental disorders begin before the age of 14
  • 20% of world’s children and adolescents have mental health issues
  • Mental disorders increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes
  • Stigma attached t mental health issues prevents people from seeking medical help
  • We have only 4000 trained mental health professional in the entire country

Mental health stigma

WHO says there is a belief that people with mental health issues are “difficult, not intelligent, or incapable of making decisions”.

This stigma can result in abuse, rejection and isolation. It also makes parents reluctant to accept that something is wrong with their child.

In fact, until the 1970s, mental health professionals believed that adolescents are incapable of experiencing depression. “They thought depression was exclusive to adults,” says Dr Savita Malhotra, an expert on adolescent psychiatry at Fortis hospital, Mohali.

Research has now established that children also experience depressive states, but its manifestations are not like adult depression.

Dr Malhotra rues that in Chandigarh, a child is brought to a psychiatrist at a very late stage when severe damage has already been done; like the child stops going to school, becomes violent, suicidal, or resorts to substance abuse.

The symptoms

The WHO says mental health problems are generally characterised by persistent sadness and loss of interest in activities that one normally enjoys, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities.

In addition, youngsters may also report loss of energy, change in appetite, sleeping disorders, anxiety, loss of concentration, indecisiveness, restlessness, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

In most cases, the child undergoes a sudden behavioural change.

“A rapid decline in academic performance, poor concentration and refusal to attend school are the first symptoms,” says Dr Damanjit Sandhu, president of Association of Mental Health Counsellors.

Cure: Good parenting

In a study conducted in 2015, PGIMER doctors suggested that since in most cases self-harm behaviour is linked to inter-personal issues, there is an urgent need for enhancing parenting skill.

Dr Malhotra says mental health problems can be handled at home if parents are understanding and spend time with children.

“Parents shouldn’t foist their views on children, but gradually make them understand the right and wrong,” she says.

Khushwant Singh, a father and an author based in Chandigarh, says, “Parents are themselves under pressure. But they must adopt a practical approach and not go overboard with their expectations.”

The parent-child relations, he says, suffer for want of communication. “Ask the child to get 95% but don’t make him feel guilty if he is unable to do so. Mental health issues arise largely when the child is made to feel guilty or inferior,” he says.

The PGIMER doctors underlined the “need to reduce the stress of performance, and not stigmatise failure in exams”.

The problem starts when the future becomes more important than the present, says Neelam Man Singh, a thespian and long-time Chandigarian. “Parents and teachers should also prepare children to accept failure and learn from it,” she says.

Experts also urged schools to hold interactive sessions where children, who have performed well in the past, share their experiences and challenges.

“Children are more likely to share their concerns with their friends than elders,” says Dr Prabha Vig of Panjab University, who had conducted a study on loneliness among Chandigarh teens in 2016.

Dr Malhotra says it’s not just the child, parents too need counselling as changes at home are vital for a youngster’s recovery.

The WHO called for school-based programmes to enhance positive thinking in children.

“A lot can be achieved if the teacher can simply tell the student who hasn’t performed well that it is okay, and things can improve with some effort,” says Dr Vig.

Making mental health accessible

Experts say though the tricity is more alive to mental ailments as compared to other cities, most of its traumatised teens still go without expert help. “At best, only 25% of the children who need help visit specialists,” says Dr Sandhu.

Experts call for training all stakeholders to identify the symptoms of a child in distress, and seek expert help. Our reluctance to do so can jeopardise the future of our youth.

(Concluding part of the two-part series)

Read Part-I (A demanding Chandigarh is chipping away at childhood) HERE

First Published: Oct 11, 2017 12:13 IST

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