By Kuziva Mtawarira, Psychologist and Director of The Beast Foundation
The month of October is declared Mental Health Awareness Month with the objective of not only educating the public about mental health but also to reduce the stigma and discrimination that adults and children with mental illness are often subjected to.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on families, causing pandemic related trauma and unfolding a plethora of mental health issues. The pandemic has brought on economic instability which has left many families financially vulnerable. Breadwinners have been laid off causing a reduction of their family’s disposable income. Our country already has economic disparities and the pandemic has worsened the lives of many, especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As children see and experience the negative changes in their parent’s mental health – and the decrease in their quality of parenting because of the increased economic pressure – their mental health is also put at risk. This is not a surprising result, as children’s mental health is vulnerable in any strenuous conditions but more-so during a devastating pandemic. It is highly likely that children become depressed when they experience stressful events or live in a stressful environment, with schools being closed and not having the comfort of “hanging out” with their peers and playing outside. It is important that we are aware and informed on how depression may present itself in children and adolescents especially if they have not been diagnosed with the condition previously.
The biggest misconception is that only adults are susceptible to depression and other mental health issues. But children with depression often experience many of the same depression symptoms as adults. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function.
Studies show that children as young as pre-school going age are diagnosed with depression especially when there is a life changing event that triggers depression in children who hadn’t shown signs of it previously. However, depression in children is easy to miss, mainly because children have difficultly expressing themselves and these feelings. Symptoms of depression to look out for include:
- Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed
- A low self-esteem – feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness
- A change in sleeping patterns
- Changes in weight
- Unusual sadness or increased irritability that persists even when circumstances change
- Feelings of guilt and anger
- Low energy
- Academic success deterioration
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide
Children with depression may not necessarily experience all these symptoms. But if several of the symptoms are present for at least two weeks, it can be suggested to be depression.
How to help a child who has depression
As a parent, you need to be prepared for dealing with problems – big and small. That includes taking care of your child’s mental health. It’s important to step up when things get serious.
Your child needs emotional support, and you need to be their number one person. Emotional support from their family is the building block of further social relationships. But, how can you manage to establish this kind of a firm base?
- Spend quality time with your child
- Encourage open and honest conversations
- Listen to what your child has to say
- Acknowledge their inner struggles
Encourage a healthy lifestyle
Physical and mental health are closely connected. And a healthy lifestyle can help manage symptoms of depression. Of course, you can’t order your child to lead a healthy life but you can provide healthy options and adopt a healthy lifestyle yourself. Being subtle in your suggestions and providing a good example can help encourage them to want a healthy life for themselves.
Help with connection
Depression can lead to isolation. A lack of interaction and connection can worsen depression symptoms.
Obviously, you can’t make your child have friends or force them to socialize. Some children find it hard to socially interact and make the first move with new friends. That’s why this subject matter is delicate and takes time. You can:
- Inspire your child to join a club at school or attend activities
- Give them ideas on attending various social events
- Encourage play dates and sleepovers at your house
- Organize family gatherings
It is important to seek professional treatment when symptoms of depression continue. Parents can contact a mental health professional directly or speak to a general practitioner for a referral. There are different kinds of therapy that children can be put on that have proved to be effective for instance Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is the commonly used to treat depression. This type of therapy involves speaking about Emotions and experiences. Traditional talk therapy may not be as effective on children because of their limited
vocabulary. Play therapy would also be best suited for children. This therapy uses toys and entertainment to help children learn to reinforce their feelings and experiences and also cope with symptoms of depression.
Raising awareness annually is meaningless without disseminating resources, increasing accessibility to treatment, and the normalisation of mental health conversations within society. Below we’ve included a list of places that you can get help for your child or someone you know.
Cipla SADAG Mental Health Line
0800 4567 789 or WhatsApp 076 88 22 775
For a suicidal Emergency: 0800 567 567
Find a Support Group in your area
0800 21 22 23
TherapyRoute is a mental health service directory and resource that helps people find nearby mental health services, e.g. psychologists, social workers, community clinics, NGO’s, and psychiatric hospitals throughoutSouth Africa (and beyond).https://www.therapyroute.com/
Don’t let stigma prevent you from taking action and seeking help for your child.