Recognising mental health issues among children
15 March 2022
By Rowindy Lawrence
While the exact causes of mental disorders are not known, it has been suggested that a combination of factors including genetics, biology, physical trauma and environmental stress might be involved. As we live in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will not be a surprise if mental health issues continue to rise as stress, anxiety and even trauma set in. And the ugly truth about this is that not just adults, children who are supposed to grow up exploring the beauty of life can also be affected by mental health problems.
As the lyrics of legendary Whitney Houston’s song – Greatest Love of All – goes: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way, show them the beauty they possess inside”, I too, believe that children are a valuable asset to the future. Therefore, I feel the need to address the urgency of helping our children, our future generation, to get out of this tormenting trap by first educating the adults on how to recognise the symptoms of mental health problems and ways to cope with them.
According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Ministry of Health Malaysia, a total of 424,000 children in Malaysia suffer from mental health problems – one in five children suffer depression, two in five suffer anxiety, and one in 10 have trouble coping with stress.
Looking at the statistics as a Psychology student, I feel the urgency to address this issue especially when during this trying time by educating the adults about the signs of mental illness in hope that it can be approached holistically. What we need to know is that the most common conditions in children include anxiety disorders, depression and other mood disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), among others.
Some of the common symptoms that can be seen and should not be ignored are persistent sadness, social withdrawals, suicide ideation, harmful behaviours (hurting self or others, out-of-control behaviours, drastic changes in mood or personality and even sleeping difficulty (insomnia).
However, Dr Lee Sze Chet, clinical psychiatrist of Bukit Padang Psychiatric Hospital mentioned that symptoms in children may differ from adults as they may present signs like uneasiness in the abdomen. However, if there are changes in the pattern of their symptoms, she suggests getting these children for an assessment as soon as possible.
“For children with depression, they will show changes through behaviours such as tantrums or rebel, anger, constantly complaining of unexplained pain, having problems at school, losing interest in any activity and even being tired constantly.
“These children usually choose to withdraw from social interactions or put some distance between friends and family, and oftentimes than not this can reflect in their academic performances,” she explained.
The best way a parent or a caregiver can do when they detect these symptoms among their children is to consult a doctor and describe the behaviours to them. Health care professionals will then diagnose these children based on signs and symptoms before moving on to treatments.
Besides medication like antidepressants, among other treatment methods are psychotherapy which addresses the emotional response to mental illness through understanding and dealing with the patients’ symptoms, thoughts, and behaviours – the most common is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).
Meanwhile, creative therapies are also used to help children communicate their thoughts and feelings which are usually done through Play and Art Therapy, a two-mode treatment. Art therapy is an expressive form of treatment that takes the creative side of a person to make art that improves a person’s psychological and emotional well-being, while play therapy is used for children and conveys their behaviour and communication through the natural way that they play.
A mental illness is a woeful disease that deeply impacts a person’s day-to-day life and I believe that no one in their right mind would ever want to experience this pain but it is far more common than you think. If symptoms are recognised and treatment is started early, many of the effects of mental disorder can be prevented or at least, minimised. As a proud Malaysian, it is an unspoken duty for us to look to our left and right, and reach out to those who are in need of assistance, especially when it comes to the mental wellbeing of the precious gems of our future.
“A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and deserves the same quality of support.” ~ Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
Till next time,