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Opinions of Saturday, 20 November 2021

Columnist: Maymunah Kadiri

After coronavirus, time to focus on children’s mental health

Coronavirus Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought a heavy toll and none more than on our most vulnerable – our children, who have not only suffered the difficulties related to the lockdowns but also physical and mental pressures.

Mental health problems affect around one in six children globally. These include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and these are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives. Alarmingly, however, 75% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem aren’t getting the help they need.

Children’s emotional wellbeing is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health helps them develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

The COVID-19 pandemic declared in March 2020 resulted in children spending critical months of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, and play which are key elements of childhood itself. Learning activities were interrupted, leading to learning loss among school age children during the crucial growth and learning period of 0–6 years.

Indeed, one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, close to half the world’s students were still affected by partial or full school closures and over 100 million additional children are predicted to fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading because of the health crisis.

Prioritising education recovery is crucial to avoid a generational catastrophe as highlighted in a high-level ministerial meeting in March 2021.

November 20 is the world’s children day and what better time to focus on how to help children to recover from the interruptions and learning losses experienced through the pandemic in the last two years.

The different physical, emotional and social changes, including exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, can make our children especially vulnerable to mental health problems. Promoting psychological well-being and protecting them from adverse experiences and risk factors that may impact their potential to thrive are critical for their well-being during these formative years and for their physical and mental health in adulthood.

Though the term ‘school closures’ became widely used when the pandemic started affecting schooling systems, as schools began reopening, it became clear that not just school closures, but also open schools offering contact time at a reduced level risked slowing down the learning process. Hence, ‘disruptions’ is used to refer to the wider problem of contact time lost. A critical matter is what the long-term impacts will be on learning proficiency and to what extent has this pandemic affected the mental health of the children?

For children and adolescents with mental health needs, these disruptions have led to more suffering. School routines are important coping mechanisms for young people with mental health issues. When schools are closed, they lose an anchor in life and their symptoms could relapse. Furthermore, increased unsupervised online Internet use has magnified issues around sexual exploitation and cyberbullying.

This report shows that mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, intellectual disability, and conduct disorder, can harm the health, life outcomes, and earning capacity of young people.

According to the report, globally, more than one in seven adolescents between 10 and 19 years has been diagnosed with a mental health problem. UNICEF Nigeria Country Representative, Peter Hawkins, says that the lockdown in Nigeria increased the risk of violence and abuse, especially, among girl children.

As COVID-19 heads into its third year, the impact on children and young people’s mental health and well-being continues to weigh heavily. According to the latest available data from UNICEF, globally, at least one in seven children has been directly affected by lockdowns, while more than 1.6 billion children have suffered some loss of education. The disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people feeling

As a psychiatrist running a mental health facility, we experienced an exponential increase of over 150% of more children and adolescents coming in with severe cases of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Some of this – or at least the severity — might have been prevented if parents and knew how to identify the signs and symptoms.

While protective factors, such as loving caregivers, safe school environments, and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental health problems, the significant barriers, including stigma and lack of funding, are preventing too many children from experiencing positive mental health or accessing the support they need.

This is a call on government, public and private sector partners to commit, communicate and act to promote mental health for all children, adolescents and caregivers, protect those in need of help, and care for the most vulnerable, by putting measures needed to ensure that children receive protection against child abuse and neglect, have continued access to child physical and mental health services, and can navigate safely on the Internet.

We need policies to support parental employment since this is important to fighting child poverty. We must invest in child and adolescent mental health across sectors, not just in health, to support a whole-of-society approach to prevention, promotion and care.

Likewise we must integrate and scale up evidence-based interventions across health, education and social protection sectors – including parenting programmes that promote responsive, nurturing caregiving and support parent and caregiver mental health; and ensuring schools support mental health through quality services and positive relationships.

Finally, we must normalise mental health conversations by building a culture of compassion to break the silence surrounding mental illness. We can do so by addressing stigma and promoting a better understanding of mental health.

We must take seriously the experiences of children and young people. We owe it to our future.