Wellness & Fitness

Taming mental health crisis among children


The impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of communities, especially children has been profound.

The school closures effected to curb the spread of the pandemic, as well as the anxiety about the effects of the disease put a strain on children, causing them undue distress and suffering.

"My daughter became really clingy during that period and began bed wetting, yet she had stopped doing so a few years back. She would have nightmares that she was all alone because the pandemic had killed her parents," says Gladys who has a 13-year-old daughter.

Her child’s story is similar to many more children who will continue to grapple with the trauma and aftershocks of Covid-19, as well as its prevailing uncertainties.

As dire as this situation is, health experts note that mental health problems among children have been rising for a long time, yet the matter has been largely ignored.

Indeed, they observe that it has taken the pandemic for people to wake up to the reality of the turmoil that many children go through.

"You know, I used to think that everything was okay with my daughter so long as she was going to school and had all her basic needs met. But spending more time with her during the lockdown and seeing how she was handling the pandemic as well as other challenges teenagers go through, made me realise that we really need to pay attention to the mental health of our children," says Gladys.

A new report by Unicef dubbed 'The State of the World's Children 2021; On My Mind: Promoting, Protecting and Caring for Children's Mental Health' indicates that more than one in seven adolescents aged between 10 and 19 years is estimated to live with a diagnosed mental disorder globally.

The report further indicates that 46,000 adolescents die from suicide each year, which is among the top five causes of death in that age group.

Chitayi Murabula, the President of the Kenya Psychiatric Association, notes that mental health is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.

"We need real solutions. This is not the time for goodwill or good words. What we need is good investment in mental healthcare and a commitment to address the challenge, which is increasingly affecting children and young people,” he says.

He notes that mental health accounts for only 0.5 percent of the overall health budget, which is extremely low and insufficient.

"This allocation should go up to 10 percent or more. And this increase in resources towards mental health should also happen in the counties so that the challenge can be addressed effectively," he says.

According to Dr Murabula, investment in mental healthcare should encompass awareness creation, prevention and treatment.

For young people and the society at large, being knowledgeable on stress management tactics and problem-solving skills comes in handy in averting or managing common mental illnesses like depression or anxiety.

Sensitisation on ways to fight the condition by engaging in preferred enjoyable activities as well as building a social support network of people to go to while feeling stressed is also important.

As children and young people spend most of their time in school, Dr Murabula states that learning institutions offer good platforms for passing knowledge on mental health and illness.

"As they study, children need to be educated on the condition so they can be aware of the causes, triggers, how to handle it and know where to seek help should they be in need," he says.

Dr Murabula states that teachers are also good candidates for training on mental health as they can help provide a conducive learning environment that will not predispose children to mental health challenges.

Studies show that extreme forms of physical punishment or disciplining in school are contributors to stressful experiences that lead to mental health problems in school.

Depending on the magnitude of the offence that children commit, teachers may react by beating them up while some may be suspended or expelled.

Experts caution that instead of rushing to punish children, it is important to take time and understand the root cause of the problem, which may be due to challenges at home or trauma they experience.

"In such cases, punishing a child is not likely to solve the problem and will just make it worse and continue stressing the child."

With empowerment, Dr Murabula notes that teachers can also help to identify children at risk of developing mental health problems, so they can receive help early enough.

"Let's not wait until affected children break down. Kids who have lost loved ones, those from dysfunctional families or even those found to be engaging in alcohol or substance abuse are at high risk of suffering from mental health conditions but could be saved through effective counselling," he says.

Dr Murabula says focus on exam results as a measure of success should be discouraged. "This is causing so much pressure on children, making many of them to lose sleep, which puts them at risk of mental health problems."

Addressing stigma, which is also a major barrier to accessing care is important. "People with mental illness should not be subjected to any form of discrimination. This will encourage many people to get help before it's too late."

Treatment for mental illness can involve both medications and psychotherapy (counselling) or the latter alone, depending on the disease and its severity.