By Afifah Suhaimi
AS 81% of children aged between five and 17 are found to experience at least one trauma symptom during the early phase of COVID-19, experts warned that the pandemic’s effect on their mental health would leave them 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% to 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 little affected by the economic downturn caused by the current health pandemic, but the chaos, tension and instability of growing up during this crisis threaten to have effects on the mental health of 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 environments coming together on the spur of the moment.
This is backed by the verbal evidence obtained from the EMIR Research 3Q20 Focus Group Discussion (FGD) as some discussants have highlighted they are overwhelmed with the current situation (work and kids) and worried if this could affect their mental health.
In regards to this, experts said parents’ parenting actions may become stricter and aggressive as they undergo elevated levels of cumulative stress.
This concurs well with a study conducted by World Vision Malaysia as they pointed out 69% children said their parents used physical punishment or psychological aggression due to the stress of lockdown measures and job losses.
While children are already feeling 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 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 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, leading 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?
Firstly, as reported in Code Blue, since Malaysia only has 204 psychiatrists working at Government facilities, the Health Ministry (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, increase the waiting time for the suffering children to get the care they need.
MOH also needs to introduce an early mental health screening service with free consultancy charge to make it accessible for everyone to get a treatment, 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 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 the children.
Next, in order to support mental health care delivery, the Government should support and expand virtual mental health services. This service is not necessarily to be delivered through a website or application but through phone calls.
Although in-person treatment is best for the affected children, the pandemic and the potential of 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 that 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 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.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.