The first time Sandhya watched her 12-year-old son throw a fit, she was convinced it was mere adolescent rebellion and responded the best way she knew how; with her trusted cane. As time went by and his fits became worse, evolving into self-harm, she knew this was not normal adolescent behaviour, and that it was time to seek help. “My kid has always been very cranky. He is always angry and frustrated because of the lockdown. Initially, I would get very angry at my son and beat him for throwing tantrums.
“But when things got out of hands– he would lock himself up and inflict self-harm, we got worried. We never understood what depression was until we consulted a doctor. We got to know the reasons why he felt that way. We are now aware of the solutions. We try to be as calm as we can and lend a patient ear. He is in the process of recovering, but I guess it will take time,” Sandhya says, a cheer of up in her eyes.
Much like Sandhya, many parents are ignorant on the subject of mental health, and the problems that are associated with it. Proper awareness of the subject is still ongoing, albeit slow, but progressing. Parents and guardians still struggle with the acceptance of mental health challenges, and the right ways to respond to, and handle children experiencing any form of mental illness. For many of these parents, especially the inexperienced ones, struggle with acceptance because they do not understand mental health signs, and so the concept and what is expected of them are nothing but alien, at best and difficult, at worst.
As a result of this, they do not recognise the symptoms early on, till it becomes undeniable and severe. This is the case of Mahesh, the father of a 15-year-old girl. “My daughter stopped doing her daily activities. She would spend most of her time sleeping and would eat a lot of junk. For months we did not figure out that she was battling with anxiety and tried to escape from the situation by indulging in unhealthy food and sleep.
“It was only when I overheard a conversation at midnight between her and a friend that I realised something was wrong. The next day when I asked her, she broke down and said she recently had a breakup with her boyfriend and she was unable to cope with the situation,” he says.
Many mental health experts believe there is no particular age range for mental illness. It could happen at any time, and to anyone.
As Dr Amlanjyoti Deb, consultant psychiatrist and senior resident, department of psychiatry, Gauhati Medical College & Hospital reveals, mental health illness can affect children in many ways, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disability, specific learning disorder, language and communication disorders, and eating and elimination disorders (where children might eat inedible material like chalk, earth, etc or have beyond-age experiences of bedwetting/soiling as signs of underlying psychiatric illness).
Others include conduct disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. These illnesses are neither spiritual nor cultural and may deteriorate over time if not handled properly, and the child is not given professional attention.
“The awareness among the masses is not great right now. However, there’s some improvement. Acceptance is still the major stumbling block. For example, a lot of people now know that psychiatric illnesses are real. And yes, when one has it, they should seek treatment. That is ‘awareness.’ But when the same happens to a family member or happens to oneself, they find it difficult to take the step and address the issue. That’s the lack of ‘acceptance’ despite having ‘awareness.’ The major difference between a psychiatric illness and any other physical illness is that the former takes reigns on the basic faculties which define us as an individual and with which we express ourselves. Whether be it our language, our judgement, our ability to reason and decide upon things, our social behaviour, our emotional expressiveness…everything, name it and all is under the control of the brain. And in any psychiatric illness, the brain circuits are affected which disintegrates this sense of individuality one has, some in mild ways, some more severe. And this decline in an individual’s basic life performance is what brings along the stigma behind mental illnesses that exist,” explains Dr Amlan.
He further adds that there is no actual age for anxiety or depression to set in a child. “It stays unnoticed when a child is younger because their general behaviour might mask symptoms and hence, stay undiagnosed and unreported. Also, as you said, not many parents know the warning signs that they may catch hold of in case their children might be expressing symptoms of any mental illness.”
Dr Amlan advises parents to stay focused and observant when relating with their kids. There are a few signs to look out for among children, such as a sudden change in the general behaviour of the child, staying withdrawn/sullen, getting irritable in trivial things or staying irritable most of the time, not eating like before, not sleeping like before/while having frequent night terrors, not wanting to interact with friends like before, not wanting to do previously pleasurable activities, not wanting to go to school, a decline in scholastic performance, staying fickle-minded (losing things in school might be a sign), getting into fights with peers, growing asocial, and so on.
According to psychologist Sanjeevani Goswami, spending time with your children gives you the chance to learn their normal behaviour, and so a deviation from this normal behaviour could be a strong indication of a mental health problem.
“We can create awareness about mental health in various ways but nothing is more contagious than word of mouth. Let’s make talking about mental health a regular practice, across regions, across languages. Let’s talk about it on various platforms through various mediums. And let’s make it very easy for anybody struggling with anxiety to seek help. We must stop making jokes about therapy and mental health issues. Breaking stereotypes and openly talking about mental health would create the best awareness, according to me,” Goswami enthused.
“Every parent who spends time with their child gets acquainted with their child’s usual or ‘normal’ ways of behaviour. It’s very important for parents to notice them with curiosity, so that if there’s any difference in their usual way of behaving, for instance: if the child is now suddenly spending more lone time, or is complaining of body ache, headache, gets easily irritated, going through a lot of mood swings, not talking about their friends, not showing interest in interesting activities, not socializing, following unusual sleep patterns, sudden fall in academic grades etc., then parents must take these points as red flags. The next step is to then talk to the child with a very non-pressuring and comfortable tone, to find out what exactly is the issue and then help the child accordingly,” she adds.
A certified psychologist with a diploma in dietetics, Delhi-based Sunita Kumari, who has also suffered from depression says, “As a parent, I wanted to keep my own children safe from the illness. If childhood depression is not prevented or caught early and properly treated, the risk for relapse is very high, with each successive episode growing more severe. Kids do suffer from mental health problems. Childhood depression is very real and very common, but also very treatable.”
Sunita informs that no one thing causes depression. A family history of depression, life stresses such as losing a parent, divorce, or discrimination, and other physical or psychological problems can all contribute to the illness. Children who have been abused, neglected, have experienced other traumas, or suffer from chronic illness are also at a higher risk for depression.
“Sticking to a healthy diet and making sure that your kid exercise regularly can help a lot. Eating regular meals at regular intervals is the first step of a healthy diet. The next step is picking the right foods. Opt for whole-grain bread and other healthy carbohydrates. Try to stay away from sugary snack foods, and go for fruits, vegetables, foods high in fibre. Omega-3s help in brain functioning; fish, nuts, flaxseed oil, and dark-green leafy vegetables should be included in the diet. Selenium is an element that is essential for good health. Several pieces of research have suggested a link between selenium deficiencies and depression. Taking selenium can decrease depressive feelings. Selenium can be found in nuts, whole grains, beans, seafood, and lean meats. However, too much selenium can be toxic, so it is important to see a doctor for proper guidance,” she advises.
A huge responsibility is also on school owners and school administrators to ensure their establishments play their parts in shaping positive mental health among kids. Parents should also be properly educated on the subject and should be calm and patient when dealing with cases of mental health problems among their children. Moreover, having a warm home environment with sensitive family members is extremely important to help a child battle depression. As Dr Amlan concludes, “Evolution of a mindset is a process and shall take time. And this process too will see the light of day very soon.”