- The effects of growing up during an economic crisis
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Distance learning became the norm for children in Sri Lanka due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Just as health measures were relaxed and schools reopened, children had to adapt to a “new normal” that came about not only because of the pandemic, but because of an economic crisis. Starting yesterday (23), students are also sitting for their Ordinary Level examinations, with the Department of Government Information stating there are 517,496 students sitting for the exam this year.
In order to take a closer look at the impact the current situation in the country has on children and adolescents, The Morning Brunch spoke to Ragama General Hospital Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer at the Kelaniya University’s Medicine Faculty Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa.
According to him, there was an overall increase of 20% in the number of children presented to mental health care services following the 2019 Easter attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic the following year. There has been an increase in psychological distress, anxiety, and depression in all children and adolescents in Sri Lanka, he said.
It is in this context that the economic crisis occurred, further aggravating the mental distress of children and adolescents.
“We don’t have data of the change after the economic crisis, but there is generally an increase in children presenting with anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation to clinics,” Dr. Chandradasa said.
There are several reasons for this, he explained. Firstly, there is the chaotic environment at home, with parents standing in fuel lines and facing financial hardships. There is also the deteriorating mental health of parents. “Usually mental distress in parents is converted to mental distress in children,” he said, adding that the third factor is the continuous disruption to school education.
“The Government has continuously implemented strategies of closing schools whenever possible as a strategy of dealing with other, unrelated problems,” Dr. Chandradasa said, explaining that this is very unhealthy for the mental wellbeing of children.
One cannot ignore the impact media coverage of the current crisis has on children either. Children are exposed to content on violent incidents, controversies and other negative stories, which can cause distress as well.
Signs to watch out for
According to Dr. Chandradasa, irritability or an increase in anger is one of the main ways in which depression shows in children. Changing sleep patterns, whether it is too much sleep during the day or too little sleep during the night, as well as a lack of interest in school work and poor concentration are other signs.
In adolescents, depression is usually presented as irritability as well. However, depression may also present itself through self-harming behaviour like scratching or self-cutting or addiction to screens. “When teenagers feel empty they try to fill that emptiness using any available means of entertainment, so they usually get addicted to video games and social media. Screen addiction is also a feature of depressive symptoms in teenagers,” he said.
How can parents help
A parent’s role in helping their child begins during infancy, and Dr. Chandradasa said parents should read and learn about proper parenting styles and techniques, making sure they provide emotional validation to the child from their younger days.
Explaining that emotional validation is the ability of the parent to acknowledge emotions in children, either happiness or sadness, and react appropriately to that emotion, Dr. Chandradasa said the majority of Sri Lankan families do not have this skill. Due to this, as well as mental health not being prioritised in Sri Lanka, emotional validation is not provided to children.
He added that parents must teach children coping skills, which are strategies to counter one’s stress without adhering to maladaptive strategies, from younger days. He said that “maladaptive strategies would be playing video games or resorting to using substances when you are lonely”. Adaptive coping strategies include listening to music, physical exercise, and meditation.
When a parent notices distress in children, whether it is irritability or a change in sleep patterns, they should immediately try to talk to the child or teenager and listen to them. However, Dr. Chandradasa warned against giving them advice, saying it is very dangerous, as a child may stop talking or sharing information with the parent when they start advising the child.
“Giving advice to a child requires years of training and specialty. The lay person is unable to do that,” he said, explaining that giving advice to a child could create a distance between the child and the parent, since the child seeks comfort and a person who will listen to them.
As such, giving advice can be counterproductive and parents should seek appropriate medical opinions if they recognise distress in their child.
Impact carries on to adulthood
The impact the current situation has on children can affect them in their adulthood as well. “When you continuously face negative traumatic incidents, your personality is affected and you can develop low self-esteem, low self-efficacy, and poor emotional resilience when you grow up,” Dr. Chandradasa said. These are essential to a healthy adulthood and mental wellbeing, he added, and children who do not develop these tend to be less than productive adults.
“The effects of the Easter Sunday attacks, Covid-19, or the current crisis will be there for decades,” he warned.
Exposure to the economic crisis through media could also affect a teenager’s self-identity. According to Dr. Chandradasa, it is during middle adolescence (13 to 16 years), that one begins to develop their own identity outside their family.
However, when an adolescent sees their nationality or citizenship as something they do not appreciate, leaving the country if it is possible can become part of their self-identity.
“We would have to expect a huge brain drain and we would lose a significant amount of capable people in the coming years,” he added.
What can be done
There are several things that can be done to minimise mental distress in children and adolescents and Dr. Chandradasa presented these under three categories.
“From the Government’s side, they have to try to minimise uncertainty and indecisiveness. In order to do that, they have to tell the truth to the people,” he said, adding that while there could be distress and backlash when a government is truthful, it is better to face things right now than make it worse in the years to come.
School authorities and the Education Ministry must ensure schools continue without interruption. “Many children come to the clinic and say they are desperate to go to school because their home environments are so chaotic,” Dr. Chandradasa said.
Finally, from the parents’ side, he said they need to be mindful of their child’s mental health. This is done by listening to the child and spending more time with them.