COVID-19: Why children’s mental health must remain a priority post-pandemic, UAE experts explain

BTS mental health
The specialists’ insights come in view of World Mental Health Day (October 10)
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: From online addiction and school refusal to anxiety disorders and social skills deficit, the COVID-19 pandemic had played havoc with the mental health of many children worldwide.

With the perils of the pandemic fading away and most protocols dropped, now is the time to ensure that children’s mental health continues to get priority post-pandemic as well, experts in the UAE said in view of World Mental Health Day (October 10).

Dr George Kaliaden

“Whether we recognise it or not, our children were one of the worst affected groups under the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr George Kaliaden, clinical psychologist, Lifeline Modern Family Clinic, Dubai.

“The impact on them is more psychological than physical,” he added.

Echoing the same, Dr Reena Thomas, clinical psychologist, Medeor Hospital, Dubai, said children, regardless of age, developed more anxiety in social situations due to restricted social opportunities.

Dr Reena Thomas

“They were mostly isolated and limited to gadgets which made their normal growth challenged. They failed to develop adequate social skills required of their age which made them feel even more handicapped. Their self-esteem also got compromised at a higher level.”

Under the movement restrictions, many children also lost the valuable opportunities for developing their social skills.

School refusal, somatic concerns (constant worry about potential illness), anxiety symptoms, changed sleep and eating habits have been some of the post pandemic concerns among children, the experts said.

Tackling mental health at school

There were also a few cases of students being anxious for change in friendship groups, said Dr Kshama Lal, psychologist and head of Counselling at GEMS Modern Academy.

Dr Kshama Lal

During the pandemic, some students had lost their family members back home and they had specific anxiety concerns like fear of losing their loved ones, she recollected. “Counsellors worked closely with them to help them cope with this anxiety situation.”

She added that schools like hers had come up with a lot of initiatives to address the mental health concerns among the students during the pandemic.

“Programmes on coping with anxiety, indoor relaxation activities, positive reaffirmations, strategies for shifting mindsets were conducted for our students and parents.

“Now that students can remove masks completely, there are mixed feelings about it. Most of them are happy to throw their masks completely, but a small group of students are slightly anxious to remove masks after wearing it for more than two years. But this anxiety, I feel, is temporary and students will soon overcome that,” she said.

Threat of online addiction

Another major impact of the pandemic was the rise in online addiction. When schooling moved to online platforms, children had free access to tabs, mobile phones and internet and many began to find their comfort and excitement in video games and online channels.

“Many children and teenagers developed addictive behaviours, excessive gaming and cyber-based misadventures. We were beginning to see signs of a new generation that prefers solitary gaming rather than outdoor social play and group activities. I had treated many teenagers during this post-COVID period who were found socially withdrawn and were refusing to go to school,” Dr George said.

Pointing out that spending time alone by themselves has become a way of life for many pandemic-era children, he said: “We, as a community, need to take these signs rather seriously and take adequate remedial measures to compensate for the lost developmental opportunities. Now that we are out of the crisis, this is the time to learn from this unusual experience and take adequate measures to remedy the problems.”

Dr Reena said parents need to take school counsellors and teachers to confidence and work together to provide a supportive platform for students facing mental health concerns.

“Being more sensitive to mental health issues will help in early detection of problems and seek treatment. Weaning off gadgets and encouraging outdoor activities will be a better option to provide more opportunities for socialisation. Gradual exposures and social skill training at an individual or group level can be helpful,” she added.

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Ensuring mental health for all

Dr George said the positive change in mental health service delivery that began during the pandemic should continue.

He said that governments, NGO’s, community associations and medical service providers should continue to work together to expand the capacity, quality and accountability of mental health delivery systems and strive to achieve the goal of mental health services for all, in line with this year’s theme of the day, “make mental health for all a global priority.”

In the UAE, authorities are doing exactly that.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) recently trained a number of educators and healthcare workers on children’s mental health.

The training programme aimed to enhance trainees’ skills to spot psychological and behavioural problems among school students, and to enable them to detect early any cases that need extra attention and care. Attendees were also trained to enhance children’s positive behaviours, and to counsel children when needed.

This World Mental Health Day, the Department of Community Development (DCD) of Abu Dhabi, also released the ‘Parents’ Guide on Mental Health’ to create all-round awareness on concepts of mental health, which will help mould a healthy family environment for parents and children.