Paying attention to kids’ mental health

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Jessie called home from school, crying. She said she had a stomach ache and wanted to go home. The same scenario played out on a few consecutive days. Her parents were naturally worried and took her to the doctor. The doctor couldn’t find any medical reason for her stomach aches. What was wrong with Jessie?

If you still think that mental health is a taboo topic, it’s time to change your perception. Mental health refers to our cognitive, emotional and behavioural wellbeing. Simply put, it is all about how we think, feel and behave – something we experience every day.

According to the World Health Organisation, “Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

WHO emphasises that mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder, but also the abilities to cope with life’s challenges while carrying out our daily lives. These abilities include emotions management, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, stress management, and interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

We often think of adults when we talk about mental health, but it is something that is relevant and a priority to children as well.

Here are four reasons why we should pay attention to children’s mental health:

Mental health starts to develop from a young age.

We develop core beliefs from our childhood experiences. Core beliefs are the ways we see ourselves, other people and the world. They play a big part in our mental health as we grow up. Many mental health problems are connected to our core beliefs. For example, if a child believes that he is not good enough, he will never feel good enough in anything he does as he grows. And that could lead him to having poor self-esteem at school, in the workplace, in relationships – all aspects of his life.

Mental health is a life-long development.

Our mental health is challenged at every stage – childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and the senior years. With various challenges arising at each stage, we must be ready to face them. For example, dealing with overwhelming emotions, coping with transitions, managing loss, etc. It is important to equip children with these competencies from a young age, so that they will be able to cope later on in life.

Mental health impacts other areas of development.

Children learn and grow better when they are happy. The simple reason behind this is that when we have a positive mind, we tend to focus better. It is the same for children. When their mind is not bothered by problems like conflict with friends, bullying, low self-esteem, they are able to learn better, eat better and sleep better.

Mental health problems is a growing global problem.

One in 10 children and young people are affected by mental health problems. According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, 70% of children and young people who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at an early age. This is alarming and requires immediate attention from parents, educators, policy makers and governments.

WHO predicts that depression will become the second leading cause of diseases worldwide by 2020. That’s just two years away.

It took a while, but after having an open conversation with Jessie, her mother found out that the child had been feeling overwhelmed after moving to a new class.

Why are transitions stressful to children? I’ll cover that in my next article.

Sping Lim is a practising health psychologist based in Malaysia. Throughout her years of practice, she has come to the realisation that most social and emotional problems can be prevented if individuals are provided with the appropriate guidelines from young. Check out her work at Lilo and Friends (www.liloandfriends.com).