The Unseen Scars

Children’s  Mental Health during the Pandemic-India

By Geetika Gautam

In these challenging times, the pandemic has shaken and disturbed lives across the globe, being extremely destructive with more than 34.7L deaths worldwide and India accounting for more than 3.0L deaths. The real number is widely believed to be far higher with many people dying outside of the overwhelmed medical system and children being orphaned.

The pandemic saw the bigotry and fissures presented in our systems, exhibiting how lenient the administration has been taking care of the infrastructure, especially the health sector.

The government of India has increased the budget for the health sector by 2.5 percent of GDP from 2020 to 2021, which still remains way beneath developed and other developing countries.

Mental health is still not considered as important as any other physical illness here in India, and only 0.5 percent of the health budget on average gets allocated for mental health. When it comes to physical health, people are extremely cautious however, the majority of the population is still not aware of mental health, considers it as a westernized issue, and has taboos attached to it. 

These figures portray the priorities and dysfunctionality in the system and how child and adolescent mental health suffers while looking at such distressing demeanor by the authorities and people of the country. The pandemic accounted for a larger impact on the mental health and well-being of individuals all around, especially youngsters with about four times rising symptoms of anxiety, depression, and escalated higher rates of emotional distress, substance misuse, suicidal tendencies, and fear of isolation.

There has never been a more important time to speak about mental health and well-being… The challenges we face at this time mean that we are all likely to feel anxious and sad, no matter our age or circumstances.” (Vicky Ford, Children, and Families Minister) a WHO survey had detected that while the demand for mental health services was increasing, the pandemic has intermeddled critical mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide. Looking at India’s insufficient facilities; child mental health services got to a crumbling halt.

It was in March 2020, when the first nationwide lockdown was announced without any prior notice, after when the first lockdown was announced abruptly, in March 2020. After the starting lull, people were abruptly impacted by the financial, physical, and mental implications of the lockdown, numerous families and young people started reaching out for help with a state of panic and confusion.

In such stressful circumstances, the pandemic not only caused physical menace and trauma but a massive disruption in the daily lives of people causing severe effects on mental health, especially on children.

An eight-year-old child from India, when asked about how she feels staying at home, described how badly she misses going to school, meeting friends, playing outdoor activities, etc. Earlier she didn’t realize how important going to school was before the pandemic. She also mentioned how lonely she feels, having no friends now and how her pets aren’t even interested in playing with her all this while. She’s lost all interest in sports and it has disturbed her sleep cycle, led to difficulty in concentration, and feeling tired throughout the day. While some got a chance to spend quality time with family, the Children of frontline workers and doctors craved more love, care, affection, attention, and time from their parents. 

As the lockdown got extended, people started to cancel celebrations, vacations due to COVID-19 restrictions, which made children feel more annoyed while staying at home. They felt as if they had lost all connections with extended families and friends, and began creating their little isolated world, looking for peace in the gadgets like phones, televisions, tablets, etc.

A sixteen-year-old expressed how “being productive” started to become a more disturbing challenge than a pleasant motivation for him, which if not completed will lead to shame in the social circle. The series of traumatic events caused a huge emotional turmoil in the lives of adults and children who lost their loved ones due to COVID-19 and suffered overwhelmingly traumatic experiences leaving unpleasant scars which will take years or maybe a lifetime to heal. 

A heart-wrenching image of a migrant worker and her child got viral, as the mother died while walking from one city to another due to loss of livelihood, and the infant was seen breastfeeding a dead mother alongside the railway tracks in Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh, India. 

India saw the largest number of gravest migration crises since independence in 1947. The migrant workers started to return to their hometowns on foot and on bicycles. The pandemic started as a public health crisis, turning out to be a massive wave of malnutrition, poverty, violence, and mental health issues. As per the census information, children comprise a high share of the migrants in India, 1 out of 5 migrants are children. Children have undergone high levels of trauma, stress, and vulnerability which will affect their decision-making capabilities and self-esteem throughout life. Many child deaths were recorded across the country as a consequence of long and unsafe journeys. This in itself has a cycle of mental health issues with the generation.

In an interview with NDTV, Akancha Srivastava, a cybersecurity expert who has launched a coronavirus helpline for children said “Our authorities are overburdened, people are hassled, the helpline receiving at least 300 calls and messages in a day. It’s extremely easy in these circumstances to miss a sign on child trafficking racket or an adoption racket,” Children who were orphaned as a result coronavirus  are also being put up for illegal adoption on social media, although according to the law, an orphan with no relatives child must be attended by a government official or institution. 

Soledad Herrero, chief of child protection at UNICEF India said in an interview with DW, “In these migration journeys, many children were unaccompanied or separated. We had anecdotal evidence that when Bihar started to register some of the migration numbers, they identified in the beginning that 5% of those migrants could be children moving alone,”

While some children were lucky enough to get food, health treatment, and education even during the pandemic, some struggled for even a decent one-time meal. These tough times left a profound impact on children and can be passed on from one generation to another in the form of mistrust, paranoia, and violence towards oneself or others.

The pandemic is relentless and devastating on a global scale, while the wave wipes away the hope, everyone is still waiting to limp back to their normal lives. There’s a need to keep holding the rope, helping everyone stand, ensuring equity, having faith in our values, and preaching humanity.

This is an opportunity to grow, reconsider our priorities, revisit our take on the mental health and well-being of children and mankind in general, as it will create an impact on the generations to come, we are shaping futures and normalizing mental health checks in society.

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