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Self-harming among children on the rise

28 Dec 2020 / 09:01 H.

BY AFIFAH SUHAIMI

AS 81% of children aged five to 17 are found to experience at least one trauma symptom during the early phase of Covid-19, experts warned the pandemic’s effect on their mental health would leave them with a deep scar and stay for the rest of their lives.

In addition to that, statistics also show that child helplines worldwide have seen a 30-40% increase in calls related to psychosocial mental health since March, with a large number of calls related to self-harming among children.

In short, while children are actually not affected by the economic downturn caused by the current health pandemic, the chaos, tension and instability of growing up during this crisis, however, threatens to have effects on the mental health for many children, particularly the ones who come from low-income and less-educated households.

Besides, while school closures and work from home have been the global responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, this has reorganised family dynamics and created a stressful home environment.

Parents are not only squeezing in jobs or work-related tasks but also have to spend extra time home-schooling their children, taking care of them and dealing with their emotions.

These changes have placed parents at increased risk for parental burnout as they have many elements coming together at the spur of the moment.

This is backed by verbal evidence obtained from the EMIR Research 3Q’20 Focus Group Discussion (FGD) as some discussants have highlighted they are overwhelmed with the current situation (works and kids) and worried if this could affect their mental health.

In this regard, experts said parents’ parenting actions may become stricter and more aggressive as they undergo elevated levels of cumulative stress.

This concurs well with a study conducted by World Vision Malaysia as they pointed out that 69% of children said their parents used physical punishment or psychological aggression due to the stress of lockdown measures and the loss of jobs.

While children have already felt isolated because of school closure and extreme shifts to their regular everyday schedules, harsh parenting will, in turn, have a detrimental effect on the children’s mental health and would intensify their behavioural and emotional issues.

Apart from that, as children are required to adapt to online learning methods amid the pandemic, some seem to have an uphill task adapting to this sudden shift, especially for children that come from the B40 economic group as some of them may have limited access to the internet and electronic devices.

This would then hamper their ability to fully participate and engage in online learning and may lead to a growing sense of isolation and fear of being left behind from the others.

Consequently, studies show that these would negatively impact the development of their brain’s structure and damage the development of the nervous system’s support cells, which in turn affects the development of cognitive functioning (learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, problem-solving and decision making).

Thus, by looking at the magnitude of this issue, what can be done to address this problem before it silently “kills” our children?

First things first, as reported in Code Blue, since Malaysia only has 204 psychiatrists working in government facilities, the Ministry of Health (MoH) urgently needs to hire more psychiatrists and assign them evenly across the state as a means to improve access to mental health services.

This problem should be tackled as a matter of urgency, as a low number of psychiatrists would decrease the ability and efficiency for the services to operate, which would in essence increase the waiting time for suffering children to get the care they needed.

MoH also needs to introduce an early mental health screening service with free consultancy to make it easy and possible for everyone, especially the ones who come from the B40 families, to get an early diagnosis so early intervention can take place.

This is also vital to lessen the long-term disability of the affected children and prevent years of suffering.

More investments should also be made to educate members of the community and family members with mental health literacy through parenting workshops or peer assistance groups focusing on children as this will help to create a supportive and enabling environment for children.

Next, in order to support mental health care delivery, the government might also want to support and expand virtual mental health services. This service does not necessarily have to be delivered through a website or application but could also be delivered through phone calls.

Although in-person treatment is best for affected children, the pandemic and the potential for more waves make it imperative that we pursue options to address their needs.

In order to support the remote delivery of mental health services, mental health providers must ensure they offer personalised care that tailors to the needs of suffering children as virtual services may lead to a one-size-fits-all solution.

And most importantly, efforts must also be taken to ensure a patient’s safety and privacy in virtual care settings.

Afifah Suhaimi is research assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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