“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.” - Elizabeth Lawrence
Childhood is often described as the best time of one’s life. The footloose and fancy-free days of childhood are supposed to be full of love, care, learning & fun.
Sadly, this is not what childhood looks like for 20% of the world’s children and adolescents, who according to World Health Organization (WHO) suffer from mental disorders. WHO data also tells us that mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10-19 years. What makes this reality grimmer is another finding that states that half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, but most cases are undetected and untreated.
Childhood and adolescence are the most critical life stages in human development. We acquire different skills and get trained to graduate as responsible adults who can play a meaningful role in the society. Lack of a conducive environment for growth can, not only negatively impact the mental health of children but also set the tone for the rest of their lives. Most children carry their mental health issues well into their adulthood and this prevents them from living happy and gratifying lives.
Why does this darkness cloud the supposedly sunny days of childhood for so many young children?
What causes mental health issues in children?
There are many factors that could play a role, sometimes a combination of multiple factors. Broadly the underlying reasons could be grouped into individual, family, and environmental factors.
-Long-standing educational difficulties – children who struggle to cope academically can develop a lot of issues like anxiety, depression or, low self-esteem that can plague them for life.
-Long-term physical illness – sometimes a long-drawn illness that prevents a child from living a normal childhood can also lead to severe mental health issues. Physical illnesses can affect their mental health very deeply.
- A parent with mental health/ substance abuse problems or criminal tendencies – Parents are the primary care givers and the deepest influences on one’s personality and behaviour. A child’s relationship with parents sets the stage for all other relationships including the one with self. When a parent falls short on many accounts and is not emotionally available for the child to rely on, the child can start developing different coping mechanisms which turn into mental illnesses.
-Experiencing the death of a closed one – Losing a loved one messes the mental well-being of adults as well. On children, the effect is far graver. Their young brain is too fragile to process grief. Bereavement can drive them into a shell and let the wound of depression fester within.
-Separated parents – No matter how cordial is the separation between two parents, it turns a child’s world upside down and their sense of comfort and security evaporates overnight. Having to adjust with new partners of their parents puts further mental strain. A strained environment is the perfect ground for mental illnesses to grow on.
-Burden of adult responsibilities – For many children, childhood is a luxury they cannot afford. It is cut short due to many reasons and they are expected to live like full blown adults, taking responsibilities too heavy for their young shoulders. While they may not perish under the burden, it definitely hurts and causes emotional pain and anxiety.
-Severe bullying – Bullying is more common in our society than we would like to admit. It can scar a child for the lifetime. Bullying is the worst form of mental torture and inflicts extremely high levels of stress and paranoia on the child being bullied.
-Sexual abuse – Sexual abuse can completely rock the ship of a child’s life. Its impact is overly complex as a child does not understand what happens but deep down feels embarrassed and guilty. This could translate to self-hatred and fear of all humans.
-Poverty or homelessness – There is no adversity like poverty. When a child is left to fend for itself without two square meals a day, and there is no sense of security. or no happy place they can turn to, mental health takes a big beating. Continuous fight for survival generates copious amounts of stress, which is too much for a young mind to take on.
-Racial, sexual, or religious discrimination – Discrimination always hurts, but it is brutal to an innocent mind that does not understand the ways of the world. It is highly disturbing for children.
Types of mental health issues in children
A child’s brain is as complex as an adult’s and hence the range of issues it can encounter is also as broad. However, some mental health issues are more common than others in children.
-Self-harm – A child or adolescent brain tries to manage intense emotional pain by harming oneself. There are not too many outlets to express, or to vent out. And this seems to them the only way to release steam. Inflicting harm on oneself momentarily releases emotional energy and grows into a habit. They try to dwarf the emotional pain through the physical pain of slit wrists or cuts.
-Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – Children have as many stressors and triggers that can cause extreme worry. Be it moving to a new school or city, or exam stress, or sometimes simple stage fright. They can worry themselves sick over things that matter to them.
-Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – PTSD usually follows physical or sexual abuse, or sometimes witnessing something extremely frightening of traumatising. They relive the traumatic experience over and over again in their brain to the point that they cannot go about living a regular life.
-Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - Children who are consistently overactive ('hyperactive'), behave impulsively and have difficulty paying attention. This obviously interferes with their academic life and other developmental milestones.
-Eating disorders – Teenage brings with it, hyperactive hormones and developing sexuality. This often translates to body image issues or severe anxiety. Food becomes an obsession. There are many types of these disorders like bulimia, anorexia etc.
Signs of mental disorders in children
Early detection and right treatment can restore normal childhood and adolescent days for most children. There are some warning signs that care givers should look out for:
-Distorted sleeping patterns and mood swings – While some bit of it can be attributed to raging hormones, when its too severe and too frequent, it can be taken as a sign of an underlying issue.
-Feeling sad for more than two weeks – Just like adult anxiety or depression, when children continue to be sad for extended periods of time, it is most likely a cause for concern.
-Not eating or change in weight or eating habits – Loss of weight or appetite without any illness is usually a tell-tale sign of a mental health issue.
-Lack of concentration and frequent zoning out – A disturbed mind can never concentrate fully on any task. When a child cannot concentrate on studies or any other activity, check with a professional to rule out any disorders.
-Drug use, sexualized behaviour, legal charges – This one is a give-away. A mentally stable child will never engage in highly risky and morally dubious activities. Rather than brute force, confront with compassion.
-Isolating oneself and avoiding conversation – A mentally disturbed child can appear disengaged with everything in life. Such a child avoids socializing and conversation and prefers being on their own. While wanting sometime alone is absolutely normal, actively avoiding people is not.
Dealing with mental health issues in children
Every child deserves a feeling of being loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe. It deserves hope & optimism for the future. We owe it to them. Apart from making the world a safe and secure space, we can do the following to help children with such issues:
-Listen- One of the most important ways parents can help children is by listening to them and taking their feelings seriously. They may want a hug; they may want you to help them change something or they may want practical help.
-Professional help – There are trained child psychologists with a variety of methods and tools at their disposal. Do not dismiss children as difficult. Get them help. And respect their right to privacy. Sign up with Felicity and book your therapy session at the earliest.
Children are the future of our society. We cannot leave 20% of the world’s children in darkness. Let us build a world of happy & positive children who grow up to be responsible adults.
Mental Health: Not Just Another Buzzword
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