As schools reopen, experts say parents must pay attention to children’s mental health

From social anxiety In addition to the excitement of meeting their peers, the reopening of schools after nearly two years in most places has elicited mixed responses from children.

The lockdown saw an increase in feelings of sadness, anxiety and fear among children and adolescents. However, returning to classrooms and interacting with batch mates can usher in “normalcy” and help with their development.

Dr. Priyanka Halwasiya, a child psychologist at Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, said: “socializing…seeing more than 4 or 5 faces within households can broaden your horizons. When you meet a friend physically, you understand more things, you pick up his body language. It offers much more growth than when you see things online.”

However, experts agree that going back to school can also cause problems like social anxiety or trouble concentrating for long hours in the classroom.

Children exercise at a school in Delhi. (Photo Express by Praveen Khanna)

Dr. Halwasiya shared that when schools briefly opened in Delhi in 2021, “we saw a lot of cases of social anxiety and secondary issues.” depression therefore. Children take time to adjust to social nuances and deal with their anxiety. social anxiety it is becoming much more common even in the youngest children in classes 2 and 3, who have not been to school much. Now, they don’t know how to make friends and talk to people in public spaces.”

These younger students, who may be attending schools for the first time or have only been gone for a year, they will also face separation anxiety. Children who have not been separated from their parents before and are now between four and five years old will be “as good as a child who goes to daycare.” “Schools need to be cautious as they make this transition smooth and slow. These children may have seen their teachers or may know their names, but that is not enough to establish a relationship, “added the child psychologist.

Recounting a recent conversation with a Class 12 student, Dr. Halwasiya cautioned that older students may also struggle with social anxiety at the thought of “facing everyone.” “He hasn’t met or interacted with most of them (peers) for two years. So he’s kind of highly strung as to how people will respond and maybe they have formed their own groups and been paler or more connected to them than he was. He already feels like an outcast.”

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Children may also have trouble matching their peers academically. While there have always been different levels of educational status in a class of 40-45 students, the disparity has increased during the pandemic due to online classes, noted Dr. Halwasiya. As the number of hours also increases in school compared to online classes, concentrating and concentrating for the full six hours can also be a challenge.

Sandhya Basu, a PhD student at BITS Pilani, who has been extensively researching the impact of covid-19 on the mental well-being of children, found that several nonclinical children were reluctant to change their routine, such as getting up early in the morning. In her interaction with nearly 20 families from low socioeconomic backgrounds in Mumbai, he also noted that the symptoms of children clinically diagnosed with mild to moderate ADHD have increased during the pandemic, leading to lower levels of concentration in schools. “With the reopening of the special schools as well, some of them have returned to pre-primary grade from the primary level because one, they have forgotten what they had learned or two, their symptoms have become severe due to lack of therapy in the last two years.”

Younger children may have trouble adjusting to new routines. (Photo Express by Praveen Khanna)

What can be done: ‘Speak, reassure and express’

Dr. Kamna Chhibber, a clinical psychologist at Fortis Healthcare, said: “What adults need to do is keep giving children very calm, talking to them and encouraging them to express themselves. These three things are going to be cornerstones to ensure that impact is mediated in the best possible way as far as children are concerned.”

“I think it is important to continue have conversations with children to understand the various factors: how their socialization experience at school is going, whether they have been able to adjust to the new environments and connect with their peer group, and whether they are able to focus and transition to the new mode of learning,” she added.

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Dr. Chhibber said parents need to be vigilant about children’s reluctance to go to school or reconnect or avoid the academic curriculum. “Instead of forcing a course of action, it’s crucial to have more conversations to help them work through whatever might be causing that kind of resistance,” he explained.

“First-time or younger students may not be happy about going to school every day or getting up early. Therefore, parents should continue to encourage them and give them gentle reminders about why it is important to do certain things. They may require more support in terms of parents dropping them off at school and being available. It can also help to involve the teacher if the child shows more resistance. The teacher can also be more attentive and help integrate them and make them feel more comfortable,” added Dr. Chhibber.

Mental health problems on the rise during the pandemic, but a long road to acceptance

During the lockdown and curbs Covid-19, several children struggled with their mental health. Dr. Halwasiya noted a “tremendous increase” in the number of children seeking help since the start of the pandemic. She said: “I can’t say for sure if there is more awareness (now) but there is definitely more amount of powerlessness.”

Children wait for parents to come pick them up from schools. (Photo Express by Kamleshwar Singh)

Although the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore saw an overall lower number of help-seekers, Assistant Professor Eesha Sharma in its Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated that this did not reflect the “larger impact” of the pandemic on children’s general mental well-being. “If I’m talking only about our child and adolescent psychiatry clinic at NIMHANS, we haven’t seen an increase in the absolute number of children/parents consulting. In fact, given the lockdowns and fear of the pandemic, the number of people seeking help has generally been lower than in the years before the pandemic. Having said that, it is important to understand that mental health professionals or hospitals are more likely to be visited only when mental illness manifests itself in uncontrollable emotions and behaviors that parents and caregivers may not be able to address at home. However, the biggest impact of the pandemic has been on overall mental and physical well-being and development,” Professor Sharma shared in an email response to indiaexpress.com.

For example, Basu in his research, in collaboration with IIT Bombay, found an increase in indicators of hyperactivity among children up to six years of age, largely driven by a mobile phone addiction.

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Dr. Chhibber said indianexpress.com that the Fortis National Helpline (+91 8376804102), which used to receive 50 to 75 calls per day before the pandemic, now receives approximately 150 calls. About 40 percent of these are from people under the age of 20.

Asked if the increase in numbers indicated a heightened awareness of mental health, Dr. Chhibber said: “It’s not such a taboo topic in conversations within households now, but there’s no question we have a long , A long way to go. There is often hesitation in admitting that my child is receiving treatment, but at least there is a willingness to consider that expert intervention may be necessary, which could mean a psychiatrist or psychologist and not necessarily just the school counselor.”

He added that with the increase in digitization due to the pandemic, “it is not only urban areas that are experiencing change, but it is also happening more and more in the far reaches of the country.” The Fortis 24-hour helpline, which works in 14 different languages, “has seen so many calls from children, adolescents and their families from different parts of the country. There is still a long way to go, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.”

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