Depression and anxiety are common problems that affect people all around the nation. Since young children are generally unable to verbalise what is upsetting them emotionally, talking about their mental health can be tricky, says a Western Cape social worker.
Child mental health concerns vary from child to child, says Mzoli Mavimbela.
“You detect mental health issues in children and teenagers by noticing their unusual behaviour, such as restlessness, changing in sleeping patterns, mood swings, always sad or crying or fear of the unknown. Other tell-tale signs include withdrawing from other children, short temper/aggression, loss of interest in his/her daily activities, substance abuse as a way of coping mechanism, and poor academic performance or low concentration span.”
Mavimbela is based in George and is a social worker with the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA), a national body that deals with escalating drug and alcohol-related problems in South African communities.
Look out for the signs
Sandile Radebe, an educational psychologist and counsellor at INCEMA, a non-profit organisation that is based in Pietermaritzburg, tells Health For Mzansi that depression and anxiety are mood-related disorders and will typically manifest after traumatic events experienced by an individual.
Radebe says if you notice that your children are isolating themselves, distracted or unable to concentrate, then you should know that something is wrong.
“Children do not have the right vocabulary, to express how they feel. So, they would project their feelings using their behaviour, such as attention, the inability to recall staff, shortness in memory, and all of that.”
Impact of mental health on education
According to Selvin John Daniels, an educationist and former trade unionist from Pringle Bay, Western Cape, anxiety and depression have a significant impact on the academic performance and social connections of students in the classroom and school.
“Relationships with peers inside the classroom and on the school grounds are negatively affected. It goes undetected if the learner is naturally a ‘loner’ or ‘withdrawn’. Furthermore, homework is not completed or handed in. Learners find it impossible to work actively in a group and contribute very little in classroom banter and during teacher Q&A,” he says.
Daniels believes that anxiety and depression in students and adolescents at school can manifest in a variety of ways. The student’s mood fluctuations are indicative of underlying anxiety and depression. Others, however, become quiet and distant; when a student is an introvert by nature, the impacts are subtle, subliminal, and extremely deceptive.
Keeping an eye on behaviour
“Parents, friends and teachers need to be on the lookout for these early warning signs. Extreme behaviour is also an indicator of frustration among young people not knowing how to deal with the feelings brought about by anxiety and depression,” Daniels says.
Radebe advises parents to be mindful of their own behaviour in front of their children, explaining that children are inclined to imitate their parents’ actions, whether they are good or bad.
He says adds that some might remain in violent relationships or become hostile towards their partners as they age, just because that is what true love implies, referring to the actions of their parents or guardians.
“As a child matures, they realise that their parents love them, therefore anything they do in front of them is an indicator of their affection. It registers in their subconscious that this is what true love is.”
Communication: the means of connecting
Helping children and teenagers with their mental health need a focus on communication. This may be accomplished through establishing rapport with your children, holding informal family meetings, spending quality time with your family, and performing rituals such as applauding a child after he or she has accomplished something (positive reinforcement), suggests Mavimbela.
“We need to normalise an effective and non-judgemental communication that focuses on ‘how we can improve’ (solution-focused approach) rather than using labelling statements such as ‘why did you do that?”
To overcome these issues, according to Radebe, a person with more experience and training in working with children is required.
“It is recommended that they locate someone with greater expertise in dealing with people’s emotions, especially children’s emotions and sentiments.”
Be careful who you confide in
Regarding telling the child’s educators, Radebe suggests keeping in mind that not all teachers are sufficiently mature to maintain the confidentiality of any information supplied to them.
“Remember that they are educators who were not taught in the ethics of maintaining confidentiality. You must use extreme caution with what you reveal about a child’s mental health status.
“The greatest advice I could provide is to consult with an educational psychologist or a psychologist for guidance on what and what not to disclose to the educator.”