Mental health in children and young people

Mental health related issues are now ranked as the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians, after heart related diseases.

Mar 18, 2022

                     Heart, Mind and Soul - Fr Philip Chua

Here is a sombre yet revealing statistic: Mental health problems affect around one in every six children. The breadth of mental health problems is undoubtedly extensive – they include depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders, and are often a direct response to their prevailing circumstances.

Mental health related issues are now ranked as the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians, after heart related diseases. A national survey conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2020 revealed that approximately one in every three Malaysians aged 16 years and above have a mental health condition; nearly triple the rate of 11 per cent in 2006. The states of WP Kuala Lumpur, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak have the highest prevalence of mental health related issues. Amongst Malaysian youth aged 13 to 17, one in five suffers from depression, two in five have anxiety and one in 10 has stress related concerns. What is particularly disturbing is that 10 per cent of youths have also attempted to take their lives, and a staggering 75 per cent of children and youth who experience a mental health related concern are not getting the help they desperately need. Suffice to say, the proliferation of mental health issues, which is now exacerbated by the pandemic and the increasingly complex world that we live in, demands urgent attention.

As a social institution, the family unit plays a critical role in cultivating a nurturing environment for children to grow up and thrive in. A fundamental yet crucial component in building this foundation is the recognition that a child’s emotional wellbeing is just as important as his or her physical health. A strong mental health builds resilience to cope with whatever challenges that life throws at them, moulding them into well-rounded, healthy and wholesome adults. There is a wide range of things that we can do to keep children and youth mentally well. They include:

-- being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
-- engaging in time to play, both indoors and outdoors.
-- being part of a family that has a strong bond.
-- taking part in local activities.

Other factors are equally important, including feeling loved, trusted, understood and safe. Children who are optimistic are resilient, have some control over their lives and have a sense of belonging. They will, as a result, have a greater propensity to have good mental well-being. Most children grow up mentally healthy, but surveys suggest that more children and young people have problems with their mental health today than 30 years ago.

Traumatic events can trigger mental health problems for children and young people who are already vulnerable. Drastic changes often act as triggers. Such triggers include home relocation, change of school and even the birth of a new sibling. Teenagers often experience emotional turmoil as their minds and bodies develop. A critical part of growing up is identifying and accepting who they are. This transition to adulthood may prove challenging and so, they may experiment with alcohol, drugs or other substances which may, in turn, impact mental health. There are risk factors which can make some children and young people more likely to experience mental health problems than others. These factors include:

-- having a long-term physical illness.
-- a parent who has had mental health issues, problems with alcohol or has been in trouble with the law.
death of someone close to them.
-- parents who are separated or divorced.
-- experiencing severe bullying or physical or sexual abuse.
-- poverty or homelessness.
-- experiencing discrimination.
-- caring for a relative, taking on adult responsibilities.
-- having long-lasting difficulties at school.

Mental health problems which commonly occur in children include:

-- Depression
-- Self-harm
-- Generalised anxiety disorder
-- Post-traumatic stress disorder
-- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
-- Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa

There are a myriad of options available to young people who wish to seek help in the mental health space. Such options include:

-- Talking to someone about how you feel, such as a parent, friend or adult you trust.
-- Visiting a medical doctor.
-- Getting in touch with the Archdiocesan Mental Health Ministry or any authorised/registered counselling centre.

Often times we overlook the impact of what are seemingly simple gestures, like active listening to children and youth. Parents and guardians can play a pivotal role in providing a re-assuring environment simply by listening and taking their feelings seriously rather than being dismissive. If a child is experiencing problems at school, a teacher, school nurse, school counsellor or educational psychologist may be able to help.
Treatment for children and young people often involves talking through the problem in order to work out the best way to address the matter at hand. For young children, this may be done through play. They may be referred to a specialist such as a counsellor who is professionally trained to help them explore their feelings and behaviours.

There is ample evidence showing that play therapy and sand tray therapy can be effective for children and young people, but medication may also help in some cases. The need of every child is unique and therefore, has to be assessed by a specialist before any medication is prescribed. The professionals supporting a child will preserve the confidentiality of information shared. Young people, as do the adults, have a right to privacy if they do not wish to confide in their family members about their conversations with professionals

(Fr Philip Chua is a registered and licensed Counsellor and Clinical Supervisor under Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia. He is also the Ecclesiastical Assistant for the Archdiocesan Mental Health Ministry. If you have any queries or would like to seek counselling, write in to: [email protected] or [email protected])

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