Angad (name changed) was a four-year-old kid when he first showed signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
He sought attention from everyone, threw things around and could not sit still (like the other children in his class). He lacked concentration, was unable to focus on studying or playing with his classmates and could not channelise his high energy in the right direction. It was his aunt who first figured out that Angad, born to well-to-do professionals, was not just another naughty, restless kid in school.
At his tender age of four, nobody in his close circles even dreamt that he had a mental health issue. The stigma at the time around mental health illnesses kept his family from accepting a harsh truth. As a result of getting constantly singled out for his attention-seeking antics, he had no friends and his self-esteem hit a major low.
Angad is not alone.
Children of all age groups go through some sort of mental health issues: A study published in Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2019 found that at least 50 million children in India were affected by mental health issues and 80 to 90 percent did not seek any support for them.
The problem does not just lie there. According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, India spends just 0.05 percent of its health budget on mental health.
Not just in India, this subject is a challenge even in a developed society such as the United States. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2022 report said 44 percent of high school students felt sad and hopeless last year.
For parents, when is it the time to worry about their child? National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that some signs in children are a part of their normal growing up but some other signals should not be ignored.
1. Behavioural changes
Dr Vishnu Gade, Senior Psychiatrist, Kamineni Hospitals, Hyderabad, believes that parents know their children best. When they sense that something might not be all right with their wards, often they are not off the mark. Parents should be alert to any abnormal changes that are affecting their children’s interactions at school or at home. Their activities should be closely, discreetly watched over a few weeks and any marked change from the normal must be addressed.
2. Irritation and tantrums
Picking quarrels and getting annoyed with their family members and others are common features among pre-teens and teens. Often, the young have no one to confide their troubles in, or cannot name or articulate their problems, and they take it out on those around them. But parent must understand that the tantrums are unintentional and are an outlet to their helplessness.
3. Little communication
Children, more so adolescents, are not known to be very vocal about with their issues. Often, they could be either too silent; or too talkative. But if you as a parent or guardian notice that their talking pattern has changed and they have lost interest in playing with other children, it is then a red flag.
4. Morbid fear
It is natural to be apprehensive when a child faces new situations or tries out new things. But constantly talking about these fears and worries could be a sign of an underlying mental health issue.
5. Shifted sleeping patterns, nightmares
Sleep, too, is an important signal – whether your child is sleeping less or more, or if they are feeling drowsy through the day. Also, do not ignore it if your child has recurrent nightmares.
Preparing your child
Accept it. Angad’s mother tell us that the first thing you need to do is to accept your child the way he or she is. Only after that can you help the child to manage an issue or even beat it with time. You may also have to realise and face an eventuality that your child may not fit into society’s concept of ‘normal’.
Chuck the stigma. Confiding in your child about your own issues will encourage it to tell you about its own problems. You need to remind the child that there is no need to be embarrassed or guilty about anything. And that the child should also openly discuss the issues with close friends and teachers.
The 2022 ‘State of Youth Mental Health Report’ by mental healthcare company LifeStance Health found that 50 per cent of parents discussed mental health issues with their children a few times a week.
Positive habits. Children tend to emulate what they see at home, and it is important for parents to practise model, psychologically positive habits that their children pick up. Make a list of all that you do when under stress. Do it together as a family where the child also consciously learns about them.
In the LifeStance survey, it was found that exercising and meditation were enjoyed by both parents and children to cope with stress.
Psychotherapy: Talk or behaviour therapy is an essential part of treatment for mental health illnesses. “A trained psychologist or psychiatrist will interact with your child using various therapy modes and discuss thoughts and feelings. Your child will also learn coping skills and manage thoughts well with each progressing session,” says Shivani Misri Sadhoo, a psychologist and couples therapist in New Delhi.
Medication: Medication is the last option and is advised in extreme cases. Sadhoo says that if found necessary in rare cases, the mental health professional might put your child on some sort of medication as part of the treatment. Usually, it has been seen that therapy alone helps to improve a child’s behaviour and mannerisms.
As for our once restless little boy Angad, 20 years have passed. He is a happy and successful young man who has managed his condition well and lives life meaningfully. And much of it was possible because his supportive and sensitive parents woke up and acted in time.