The novel coronavirus is spreading and over nine lakh people are infected worldwide. This pandemic is wreaking havoc on the economic and social life as well as the mental health of people globally.
Some families have gotten separated from each other geographically and cannot reach home owing to the lockdowns or quarantine. This has stranded and isolated many children's parents, siblings and even close relatives like their grandparents. Students can't fly back home and some children have their own parents, grandparents or family members diagnosed and hospitalised. This has terrified the younger children and set off multiple panic attacks.
Kids might be feeling alone since they have no friends to play with or places to go.
With mostly all universities, colleges, schools, sports facilities, clubs and play areas shut down there is no recreational outlet for the children either. This has led many of them to feel more cut off from their friends and having no outlet to release all their physical energy or just play.
So many Fathers and Mothers are working from home and are at home, thus unsettling the work-life balance and leaving no quality time left to be spent with their kids. This can lead children to feel more isolated, alone, frustrated or insecure and not have anyone around to share their thoughts and feelings with.
Amongst the constant negative news of the pandemic worldwide, we have been grappling with an increase in the number of cases of anxiety, depression, phobias and stress among the youth. Children with existing mental health concerns such as anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are more vulnerable to developing new symptoms or worsening of existing emotional or psychological concerns.
For example, a 13-year-old boy who was diagnosed with anxiety and panic attacks and underwent treatment eight months ago has completely relapsed. He is irritable, low and frustrated. He has become obsessed with the virus - how it spreads, treatment, deaths, etc. While it is good to wash your hands frequently he has become obsessed with cleaning everything in his room and wears his mask at home. He is restless, not sleeping till late at night and during the day he can't concentrate on his online classes. He's worried about his grandfather who lives with them and keeps complaining of chest pains, breathlessness and headaches. He finally broke down and told his mother that he feels like dying. That's when his parents approached the doctors again and re-started his counselling sessions.
Show your kids how this lock down can be a good opportunity to spend more time with the family.
Parents should be alert and recognise the red flags or warning signals for mental health concerns in their children. They can be as follows-
Persistent low or irritable moods
Feeling overwhelmed all the time with hypersensitivity or crying spells.
Lack or loss of interest in almost everything.
Persistent negative or fearful thoughts with helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
Ruminating , obsessive thoughts, images or feelings that cannot be blocked which are disturbing in nature.
Repetitive behaviours or rituals that cannot be controlled
Anxiety symptoms with restlessness, feeling on edge all the time, breathlessness, palpitations or nausea.
Changes in eating or sleeping patterns with disturbed sleep or nightmares.
Lethargy, fatigue and inability to concentrate and focus.
-Multiple somatic or physical symptoms with no real medical reasons, such as headaches , backaches, dizziness , blurring of vision, joint pains etc.
Social withdrawal and addiction to screen time or social media.
How can we help?
Reassure children that this is a temporary phase and that it is a beautiful way to spend precious quality time with their parents and family members, who are otherwise busy with office or work in general.
Explain to them that social distancing is the best way to curb the virus from spreading and affecting people that they love. They need to understand that this is a worldwide phenomenon that's never happened before and that everyone is in this together around the globe.
Establish the importance of collective responsibility. This will help them feel that they are doing something important and meaningful for a larger outcome and will not feel isolated or alone.
Help them stay connected with family members, relatives and friends through various mediums such as video calls, online chats, social media or simple telephonic conversations. One can organise virtual playdates group video calls. However do ensure that screen time is restricted and that they do not get addicted to any form of television watching , social media or gaming.
Restrain and restrict disturbing news through the TV, articles, WhatsApp group and be mindful of the conversations that we have around them
Help them verbalise their fears and anxieties with regards to what is happening so that all their doubts or unrealistic, irrational thoughts are negated and questions are logically answered. Give them simple medical rationals and information which will make them understand this phenomenon better.
Set up a robust routine and schedule for children at home for online schoolwork, playtime, self-studies or recreational activities such as board games, music, screen time, hobbies or cooking and baking.
Bring about creativity and humour to make this difficult situation a memorable and pleasant one for them.
This time frame in all our lives will be etched in our memories forever. Thus creating experiences with mindfulness and thoughtfulness will ensure our children's emotional and psychological well-being are safeguarded at all times.
The author is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and advisor with Mpower - The Centre, Bangalore