First, a startling stat: half of all serious mental health issues in adults begin before the age of 14. Half!
Trinbagonians just don’t get it with play, do we? We just don’t realise how important play is to children. Play is the way children learn. Play is the way they develop. Play is the way they maintain their emotional well-being. When children don’t play, they do not develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.
Most children used to grow up mentally stable. Perhaps not exactly healthy but stable. Now, children have more problems with their mental health, are more depressed, more anxious, than a generation ago. That is a direct response to what’s happening in their lives and the remarkable changes in the way we now live.
In the USA, one in five children has a mental health problem. What can one expect of a nation where 40 per cent of the children live in poverty with little opportunity of advancing? In Canada and Australia, the figure is one in seven, slightly better. The equivalent number is one in 10 in the UK.
In T&T? The Ministry of Health’s website’s latest Annual Statistical Report is from 2009-2011. Some 56 years after Independence and the latest health report is seven years out of date. In addition, it is not accessible, click on it and nothing happens.
There are some reasons why children may develop mental illness and having them doesn’t necessarily mean difficulties are bound to come up.
Things like having a long-term physical illness, eg diabetes. Having a parent who has had mental health problems or has been in trouble with the law, is another. Losing someone close either through death or separation or divorce always affects children badly. Severe abuse at home or bullying at school are part of growing up now. Living in poverty or being homeless. Taking on adult responsibilities, common in the West Indies. Long-standing educational difficulties. Experiencing discrimination because of your sexuality is but the latest to appear on the general public’s horizon, but one well known to professionals
Things that can help keep children mentally well include being part of a family that gets along well most of the time. Being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise. Having time and freedom to play, indoors and outdoors. Going to a school that looks after the well-being of its pupils. That last one is really a joke in disguise, how many schools in T&T do you know that care for the well-being of their students? Three? Four?
Other factors that are important include feeling loved, trusted, understood and safe. Wow! Having a sense of belonging to a family, school and community. Being interested in life and having opportunities to enjoy yourself. Being hopeful and optimistic. Being able to learn and having opportunities to succeed. Feeling you have some control over your life. Finally, having the strength to cope when something is wrong and the ability to solve problems.
Depression is one of the common mental health problems that affect children much more than in the past. Teenagers are more likely to experience depression than young children. Generalised anxiety disorder is another one increasing rapidly. Again it’s more common in adolescents but young children from dysfunctional families or children going through their SEA year are at high risk. I think that all SEA students suffer from some degree of anxiety.
Self-harm is considered a form of managing intense emotional pain by cutting or burning oneself. It’s so common today that here in T&T, school uniforms have been modified so that upper extremities are not covered. Post-traumatic stress disorder can follow any form of abuse, witnessing something extremely frightening or traumatizing or being the victim of violence or severe bullying.
We are a violent, unhappy society. The children internalise and reflect this unhappiness and anger. It’s not easy being a child today.