My five year old niece last week with sadness in her voice innocently inquired from me about when, “Coronavirus will go away” and she returns to school. It clearly demonstrated that remaining home for so long has taken a toll on her mind since she is used to spending most of the time learning and with friends at school.
Hellen Grace Namulwana, the technical program manager for child protection unit, World Vision Uganda, says children in such a situation have a lot of unanswered questions on their minds, which bring about anxiety. “The first question is why the sudden stop of school. The second is when this will end. They will also ask why there seems no end in sight despite several weeks of staying home”, says Namulwana.
Yvonne Zabu, a therapist from Wellness Psychological Services, a mental health organisation, says though it is until children become adolescent that they start experiencing serious mental issues, a parent can tell if a child is experiencing anxiety or depression through monitoring their behaviour. “A parent can look out for changes in sleep patterns, changes in the child’s ability to concentrate, energy levels, appetite and motivation. If a parent is the kind that talks regularly with the child, they will be open about thoughts on suicide, guilt and shame”, she states.
Dr Benedict Akimana, a psychiatrist and mental health advocate adds that any slight change in behaviour and the norm shouldn’t be ignored. For example, when a child who had achieved dryness resumes bed wetting or when a child starts acting up and behaving strangely.
As children are used to the school schedule, experts say that even in such a lockdown situation, schools should continue collaborating with parents to ensure the mental well-being. “We should look at schools’ need to provide extra learning materials to parents. The lockdown calls for more responsibility from parents on their children in as far as learning is concerned. Not only learning materials but also resources like useful websites. Parents should adjust the way they view their children’s education and take a lead role (to create the school environment)”, says Zabu.
Namulwana in this aspect, feels the ability of parents to be able to mentally support children is limited and it varies from one person to another. She says, since the parents, as the core caretakers and biggest social support mechanism, are going through different struggles, addressing children’s mental health should be done hand in hand with parents’. She also notes that the recent report of increase in domestic violence could be attributed to the mental health crisis.
Most of the children who are prone to suffering mental illness are from vulnerable groups like those living in poverty, special needs or those already struggling with mental health issues according to experts. In a 2016 report by world health organisation, the body indicated that 90% of Ugandans with mental illness never receive treatment. This is attributed to lack of awareness and access to care. “Though many people are beginning to get awareness that mental health is part of the general well-being of a person, people don’t know that there are several support centres. For example people know Butabika but largely as a scary place. They are not aware that there are several other good options for support”, says Zabu.
Dr Benedict Akimana adds that it is imperative to create wide mental health awareness, claiming we can’t ‘fight what we don’t know’. “As the saying goes, the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. We lack knowledge regarding mental illness in general. So we can’t identify what we do not know”, Akimana noted. In his recent address, President Yoweri Museveni indicated that children in candidate classes will soon resume school and the government through the Ministry of Education, carried out a countrywide distribution of learning materials.