Much has been discussed about Covid-19and the health, economic and social repercussions on our people. As is wont of human nature, the significant majority of us are adapting to the new normal as best as we can, in what can only be described as perhaps the social playout of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Man, ever the social animal, has embraced isolation and social distancing for survival. However, in doing so, adults across the world, including India, are reporting a four-fold increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms. One category of silent sufferers in particular are really struggling to cope with the pandemic – our children.
As a member of the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH), I believe we really need to turn our attention now to bolstering our children’s psychological and emotional health. Here’s why:
Impact of isolated studying: Children and adolescents alike have been at home for longer than ever before in recent memory. Schools and colleges in most places have now been closed for two consecutive years, with classes being conducted online. Studying has never been as much of an individual activity as it is now. With classroom interaction out of the picture, students increasingly depend on online resources, textbooks and secondary research. Some motivated self-learners like high-school student Vaishnavi Bharadwaj feel this is making them more self-reliant. For the vast majority, however, the cumulative learning from continuous interaction and discussions with peers and teachers has been severely impacted.
The absence of interactive in-person sessions and practical, laboratory classes make mathematical and scientific concepts harder to grasp for most children. In fact, in one study, 82% of students interviewed expressed most of the health and behavioral issues they faced during the pandemic was due to academic loss. Add to this the lack of a healthy after-school routine in terms of extra-curricular learning activities and socializing. Thousands of youngsters are battling a hitherto unexperienced sense of loneliness, stress and despair, and uncertainty about the future. They are desperately fighting real and imagined anxieties and fears, and a sense of helplessness, falling prey to anxiety, depression and self-destructive behaviors. Research shows that Childline – an Indian helpline for children in distress – is receiving more calls than ever before since the pandemic started, from children and young adults struggling with social isolation.
The loss of a home away from home: The pandemic has brought to the fore the biggest but perhaps the most understated benefit of formal schooling. Schools provide an unparalleled safe, stable and structured atmosphere for childrens’ overall emotional and social development.
The social interaction and learning in schools tremendously aid the development of social and communication skills in older children, and speech and language development in younger children. Youngsters at schools and colleges also learn a host of emotional values like sharing and healthy competition, and deeper social qualities including empathy, developing and nurturing friendships, social responsibility and a sense of collective wellbeing, preparing them for the trials and tribulations of adulthood. For young adults, colleges are where they collectively soul-search to give shape to their individual personalities through otherwise turbulent growing up years. The company and empathy of friends and peers provides youngsters with unconditional love and acceptance, and a strong sense of social security. Covid-19 has done away with this safety net for children and young adults alike.
Sedentary lifestyles and their implication: Children typically engage in unstructured play, structured sports, and other physically and emotionally strengthening extra-curricular activities. The pandemic has now left them at increased risk of self-harm and frustration arising from the lack of safe outlets for physical energy. Between online zoom sessions and lack of outdoor play time, they are spending more time in front of the screen than ever before. The net result? Prolonged screen viewing is causing digital eye strain amongst most children and adolescents. Youngsters are increasingly complaining of itchy and dry eyes, and severe headaches. Increased screen time is also increasing their risk of developing myopia. Passive information consumption is further impacting their ability to concentrate. The lack of play and outdoor activities and a strong routine has also resulted in inadequate physical activity, greater tendency of obesity and altered, unhealthy sleeping habits in children. Lack of adequate exposure to sunlight resulting in lowered Vitamin-D levels and enhanced fatigue is another common complaint.
Altered family and social dynamics: We have always associated homes with safety where children are concerned. Think again. Studies show greater instances of physical and psychological abuse on children, particularly in rural areas, during the pandemic. Children benefit emotionally and socially from enriching interactions with family and friends. In urban cities and larger towns, pandemic routines are leaving parents busier than ever, either glued to their own systems while they work from home, or occupied with household chores due to lack of domestic help. This is resulting in lesser quality time for children with parents. Interactions with extended family and friends and social gatherings such as holidays, birthday gatherings and festive celebrations have also either drastically reduced or come to a complete halt, leaving youngsters feeling isolated.
Difficult times for the differently abled: Now imagine children of single parents. Their lives are practically intertwined and enslaved with that of the parent with little outside influence. This has led to a vicious cycle of conflict and control between parent and child, causing significant psychosocial impact and stress on both the child and the parent who is left to manage all caretaking responsibilities including providing schooling support, homework and emotional support. The situation is further exacerbated for children and adolescents with special needs. Differently abled children and their parents tend to benefit heavily from routine social interactions, and structured and familiar learning interventions. Most of them are now struggling to cope or have regressed in their learning and developmental progress thanks to the impact of the lockdown. Children of medical professionals and front-line workers are also constantly subjected to high levels of stress at home given the strenuous and demanding responsibilities on their parents at these times. Some of them have been separated from their parents for long periods, resulting in significant psychosocial impact. Parents are reporting about heightened irritability, distraction and clinginess in their children. Adolescents in particular are already coping with enough stress in terms of study pressure, hormonal changes that make them susceptible to mood swings, bouts of depression and heightened anger. Such cases, already at high risk of psychological problems, might fall through the safety net that had held them together in the form of a protective family life, peer support, and psychological support from teachers.
Save the children. Save our future.
Youngsters often find routine life overwhelming even under normal circumstances. The pandemic has been an extremely difficult time for all of us, but children and adolescents in particular may continue to experience the impact of this altered reality over many years. From mild anxiety to acute panic, obsessive behaviors, heightened ADHD, depression and even posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and other diverse neuro-psychiatric issues, the mental health consequences are varied and severe in the long run. Unfortunately, the stigma attached with mental health in our country results in most of these serious health consequences being either trivialized or underplayed.
We must put an end to the vicious cycle of shame and silent suffering associated with mental health and make it a priority. We need to sensitize families, educational, health and social support institutions to proactively tackle mental health issues in youngsters and increase focus on this in the coming months. Schools and colleges must proactively introduce well-being and counseling sessions to provide adequate social and emotional support and therapy to all children. The government and healthcare policy makers could focus on developing easily accessible and cost-effective intervention models to promote emotional wellbeing. Physicians, pediatricians and family doctors are already providing mental health resources and guided counselling support for children and families alike. To aid them, we must increase efforts on developing a trained cadre of psychosocial support providers who can work with youngsters across rural and urban communities. Parents need to keep a close watch on their children and proactively reach out and seek professional help if required.
Challenging on the system as it may be, we need to move away from our blinkered approach to the pandemic and mobilize resources to address the wider health implications and curb collateral damage. And we must do this with a sense of urgency, before the dominoes start falling.
Dr. Srivats Bharadwaj is a Health Care Entrepreneur, Health-Tech Consultant and an Academician.
(DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and ETHealthworld.com does not necessarily subscribe to it. ETHealthworld.com shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly)