It’s been over two years since the COVID-19 Pandemic shook the world, and there is no sign of this disease dying down. Due to the fear of the virus, families had confined themselves to their homes for months (in some cases even a year), and children had borne the brunt of such confinement more intensely than adults. From classes to games to communication with friends – everything shifted online overnight, and psychologists and psychiatrists opine that this has harmed children’s mental health.
The national helpline for psychological support and mental health services at NIMHANS, Bengaluru, receives calls from parents every day with complaints of the children suffering from suicidal tendencies, depression, and loneliness.
The NIMHANS helpline had received about 50-60 calls daily, but post lockdown, the scenario has completely changed. NIMHANS is now receiving over 200 calls every day, most of which are from parents seeking advice on handling children at home.
Speaking to News18, Dr Sanjeev Kumar M, assistant professor, Centre of Psychological Support in Disaster Management (CPSSDM), said that children had been highly affected due to the series of lockdowns.
“We receive more number of calls from parents regarding their children’s mental health now. Earlier, we used to get about 50-60 calls a day, and most of them were related to adult mental issues. However, now it’s at least 200 calls, and shockingly most are related to children," Dr Kumar said.
The situation is scary in cities like Bengaluru because, on average, 150 children are reporting mental health issues post-pandemic every day. He propounded that this is not just the case of one city though, it must be happening in other places too.
Giving an example of a case, Dr Kumar said, “A parent had called us saying her daughter lost interest in studies, extra-curricular activities, etc. The girl also stopped eating properly. To understand what exactly the girl is going through, we talked to the child. The girl said she feels she is confined to the boundaries of her home, and she wants to meet with her friends. Since the lockdown, she couldn’t meet any of her friends, and depression slowly started growing inside her."
“She had started hating her parents for not allowing her to go out. Parents tried their best to make her understand that stepping out of the home could be fatal during the Pandemic. The girl is below the age of 15, and she did not understand the concerns. She isolated herself and stopped talking to her parents. We took time and started counselling her, and finally, we managed to make her understand what the whole world is going through for the last two years," added the doctor.
In another instance, the doctor recalled that a child had suicidal tendencies.
“Nikhil, a student below the age of 15, couldn’t go out due to the lockdown, and his parents did not have time to spend with him as they were working on tight schedules from home. So after months of confinement, he started hurting himself. He would hit the wall out of anger, scream at his parents, etc. The parents finally understood that there is something wrong with his behaviour and reached out to us. We started counselling both the child and the parents. Firstly, we made parents understand how important it is to spend quality time with their son, and once they started giving time, the situation turned back to normal," a NIMHANS official said.
“In several cases, parents did not understand what children are going through. So instead of empathizing, they yelled at the child, beat him up if he didn’t study, etc. But parents should understand and help their children come out from depression. No point in forcing children to learn when they are depressed. It will further harm the children’s mental health and may turn hatred towards parents and on self," explained another official.
Speaking to News18, popular psychologist Dr A Shreedhara contradicts NIMHANS experts’ observation. “The cases might triple when compared to pre-pandemic times. But, the Pandemic alone cannot be considered an absolute reason for children suffering from mental health. Our social value system in cities are the main culprit. Our education and moral systems, as well as upbringing, should be changed. We are just solving problems when we find them. But we have not built an eco-system where children can go through freedom of life. Society should give more freedom to children. Children should be taught to question and not supposed to blindly agree to what parents, society and education system ask them to follow," Shreedhara said.
“The economic crisis in cities is also a reason for children’s erratic behaviour. Parents who are scared to lose their job cannot practically spend more time with their children. So we cannot blame anyone except the entire unscientific system we have built these years," he added.
According to observations made by Dr Shreedhara, children below the age of 5 are likely to suffer from pandemic isolation in future. “Children below the age of 5 have been badly affected. Because they have never been to schools, they have spent little time outside their homes. This pandemic isolation seems normal to them. But, we should understand one thing, a child learns to speak at the age of 3, learns to understand and copy from others from the age of 4 and finds positive, negative aspects of society from the age of 5. However, the pandemic isolation will limit or delay these learnings and the natural mental growth in such children. Children learn from what they see, and experience and because the Pandemic has taken away their opportunity to see and learn more, their natural growth will undoubtedly be affected," he explained.
However, Shreedhara advised parents not to worry and said that the kids would pick up once the schools reopen, and because they are young, they will catch up faster.