Writing about the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it has brought into our world on children, DR. DEEPIKA CHAMOLI SHAHI offers techniques on how children, and indeed adults, can avail of to better deal with the mental health pressures of the pandemic.
The physical and mental health crises during the current pandemic have created unprecedented havoc at the global level. Red Cross has declared mental issues to be a silent killer during the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, there is an urgent need to tackle mental health issues. Psychologists and psychiatrists are reporting that mental health problems have increased manifold after COVID-19 came into our lives.
I have also observed an increased number of anxiety, stress disorder and panic disorder cases over the past one year. Moreover, previously existing mental health issues have been aggravated in patients because of the daily stress induced by the fallout from the pandemic.
People of all age groups have been affected in different ways. According to Dr. P. K. Dalal, former President of the Indian Psychiatric Society, “there is a need to update mental health strategies in the context of such rapidly spreading contagious illness, which can act as a resource for such a situation, currently and in future”.
A nation is known by its citizens, and our children are our future citizens. Hence, there is an urgent need to address the mental health of children in order to understand and better prepare them for becoming active citizens.
Why children are vulnerable to mental health issues in this pandemic
We are still in the process of transition to the reality of a post-pandemic world, which understandably causes a lot of stress. The pandemic is leading to medical trauma (for COVID patients), traumatic grief (for the family and friends of those who have been afflicted by COVID) and, in some cases, early childhood trauma (for young children witnessing their family members struggling with COVID).
Prof. Katja Seitz-Stein, a German psychologist and professor for developmental and educational psychology at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, warns that “[the] pandemic and its associated public health actions might lead to a rise in psychopathological symptoms in general and trauma-related symptomatology in particular, particularly among susceptible individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions”.
While everyone is in crisis, it seems to have gone a bit under the radar that our children are also a part of it, even though children today are much more prone to stress than adults.
According to many psychological theories, the process of concept formation starts just after birth, as children learn from the environment and their surroundings. But overloading of information negatively impacts and adversely affects their psychology. Nowadays, there is an information overload for children from various sources, such as, for example, having to learn new technological tools for attending school classes, an increase in the number of assignments, and information overload by social media.
As per Australian educational psychologist Dr. John Sweller, Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales, information overload reduces the attention span, problem-solving and decision-making capabilities in children, leading to frustration and irritation, which in turn is a great source of mental health issues.
Change is inevitable and one must accept it, but due to the stress of rapid transition, parents and educational institutions are overburdening children with their expectations. In an ever-changing world, expectations from children are the same as before.
According to a recent study of educators and education administrators from 59 countries conducted by Fernando M. Reimers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Andreas Schleicher from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “The crisis has revealed the enormous potential for innovation that is dormant in many education systems”.
The staff at educational institutions have been putting extensive effort into innovating and implementing new policies and strategies. Due to this, children’s academic workload has greatly increased today. There is an excessive number of online seminars, webinars and workshops being organised for students.
But we must realise that students are getting overburdened with the tiresome process of online teaching, which is hampering their mental growth.
Due to the thankless combination of the immense workload of technology-based assignments, daily routine, and the uncertainty over their schooling and examinations, many children are suffering from stress, loneliness, anxiety, panic disorder, and many other mental health issues.
In this period of change and adaption, if we adults have been finding it difficult to fully adjust to our new reality, it is unreasonable to expect it from our children. Adjusting to such drastic changes is a time-consuming process. One has to gradually work to condition their mind so as to adapt to the current world. However, sudden academic pressure and stress can hamper children’s mental growth and ruin their future.
How to help children?
There is a dire need to focus on children’s mental health. This can be achieved by encouraging children (as well as fellow adults) to implement the following techniques in their day-to-day life.
- Mindful breathing: Observe the process of inhalation and exhalation from one’s lungs, and focus on the breath for five minutes daily. This is one of the most helpful techniques to reduce stress among young children.
- Mindfulness in day to day life: Teaching them to focus on their present, rather than being distracted by worries relating the past or the future. This is an important facet of Buddhist philosophy.
- Visualization of scenic natural beauty for ten minutes: For example, imagining a beautiful garden with colourful flowers, river, green grass of the lawn, and chirping of birds (J Nguyen; 2018).
- Positive affirmations: Repeating and paying attention to positive words and phrases to rewire the brain. Self-affirmations have been shown to decrease health-deteriorating stress
- Penning five personal strengths on a daily basis.
- Journaling one’s thoughts.
- Chanting mantra daily for 15 minutes enhances mental functioning by rewiring brain. This is as per research conducted by me in the year 2017.
All of the above mentioned techniques lead to an increase in endorphins in our body. Endorphins are the feel-good hormones responsible for our happiness.
These techniques have a neuroplastic effect on the brain, and tend to reduce the size of the parts of the brain responsible for depression and stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an overload of stress. In its midst, let us be mindful of what our children are going through mentally.
It is not reasonable to hold them in high expectation, especially in terms of academic achievement, at a time of crisis. Parents must therefore reset their expectations, so as not to distort their wards’ thought process, and ultimately their future.
Give children, much like adults, time to gradually and mindfully come to terms with and get their bearings around their changed circumstances, so that all of us can be better adjusted to deal with the future. It is difficult but not impossible.