Teens in UAE feel the coronavirus pandemic strain
More than 80 percent of young people with a history of mental health problems said their condition has worsened.
The number of teenagers struggling with mental health issues as a result of the Covid-19 challenges has been on the rise in the UAE, according to psychologists.
The restrictions that were imposed by the government to contain the spread of Covid-19 have been tough for many teenagers - deprived of their friends as they can't go out for social gatherings, and worried about job prospects in a post-pandemic economy.
Psychologists said without the normal routine and structure of school and college attendance, teenagers have been starved of some of the support and reassurance they are accustomed to as they grow in emotional maturity and approach adulthood.
These circumstances can leave them feeling overwhelmed, damaging their self-confidence and motivation.
Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, said she had witnessed an upsurge in teenagers struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since the lockdown began and schooling went online.
A recent survey revealed how more than 80 per cent of young people with a history of mental health problems say their condition has worsened since the pandemic started.
Dharamshi urged parents to engage in regular, reassuring conversations with their teenage children to help support their mental wellbeing. "For many teenagers, life has completely turned upside down. Even with the gradual lifting of restrictions, their situation remains unchanged," she said. "They have had to contend with home-learning, isolation from their friends, cancellation of 'major' events in their calendars such as the school prom, graduation ceremonies, and launching themselves into the job market."
Many may be feeling they have been 'robbed' of a key and monumental time in their lives as they progress to adulthood. This is a crucial time in their development into fully rounded adults and so it's only natural that many are struggling to accept and adapt to such an abrupt 'end' to the academic year.
"Many teens may also be dealing with the illness directly if a family member has been affected, or if their families have lost income as a result of job cuts or salary reductions."
Teenage is a difficult time
Dr Mohamed Yousaf, specialist psychiatrist, Aster Clinic, Al Muteena, said mental illness is common among teens, given the present scenario. "Teenage is a difficult time for both parents and the children. And our current situation can make it worse for the teens," said Yousaf.
"It is their age of exploring the world and making new friends and learning life lessons. This uncertainty of future can cause a lot of mental tension in everyone and in teens specially. It is very natural to worry about your future, your studies, your aspirations, your dreams etc."
He explained that teens can experience mood swings, behaviour changes, physical changes etc. "A talkative and friendly teen suddenly turns a loner. Change in eating and sleeping habits. Feeing agitation and anger are few symptoms of mental illness," said Yousaf, adding that parents should pay attention to their teens and watch out for any extreme changes. "Seek professional help if you see a drastic change in their behaviour. A few counselling sessions can help the teens beat the blues."
The psychiatrist also advised parents to avoid undue criticism and comparisons because it can cause stress and affect the child's self-esteem.
For Dr Laila Mohamadien, specialist psychiatrist at Medcare Hospital Sharjah, said teenage is the age of maximum ambition to socialise and communicate with others to reach self-integration and develop as a mature adult.
"The teen brain is compelled to seek out new experiences that help the brain learn, develop and mature. Experiences come from interacting and communicating with others and learning by socialisation," she said.
"And now with the uncertainties about the future, change of education system - study at home and no exams or online exams -children miss their social life."
According to psychologists, there is a huge amount of anxiety, stress, disappointment, anger, resentment and grief among teenagers right now. The teenagers need support to define and manoeuvre their thoughts, emotions and behavioural responses.
How teenagers can cope:
- Maintain a daily routine with consistent sleep, activity and study patterns
- Stay connected with others, and try to find moments of humour
- Talk to people you feel comfortable with about your feelings or worries
- Eat breakfast every morning, plus snacks and meals at regular times
- Limit coffee or energy drinks to cuts feelings of anxiety
- Limit the amount of time you spend talking about Covid-19
- Do hobbies or activities that you enjoy and calm you down
Schools boost communication with parents, kids
Stress among teenagers and children has apparently increased in the last few months.
From anxiety about the future to missing their friends due to social distancing and the interruption of typical school routines have been challenging for all students.
In light of the situation, a recent Q&A posted by Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) offered a free support helpline on its 'Safety at Schools' webpage to address issues on mental health. Students can call or WhatsApp the free support line on 800 4673 (HOPE).
The support line service, delivered by a team of volunteers, is in Arabic and English.
Many head teachers explained that institutes need to be always alert on the mental well-being of their students.
Sangita Chima, principal, Amity School Dubai, said: "Stress among children has drastically increased over the past few months. In order to support our school community, weekly calls are being scheduled with parents to assess their well-being as well as that of their children. Maintaining consistent communication with parents has allowed us to learn more about our students and give them the support they require."
She added: "We have a school counsellor, who is available throughout the week to counsel students virtually. Being away from classmates and friends has proven to be challenging for many students. We try to ensure that online classes are as interactive as possible and encouraging conversations among students has helped a lot of them feel less isolated."
With schools still closed and extracurricular activities almost at a standstill, children and young adults have lost out on their main avenue of human interaction and socialisation - educational institutions.
Sara Hedger, head of child safeguarding and child protection, GEMS Education, said: "Creating a sense of community and belonging is key in tackling isolation. That is why we have regular welfare checks with students, which might be carried out by teachers, school leaders or school counsellors, all aimed at making sure children have the opportunity to share their worries and a safe space to talk them through."
She added: "Schools have also created virtual spaces to encourage students to interact as if they were at school.
These include virtual playtimes that are monitored by school staff and simple but effective approaches such as daily class check-ins, group work during lessons and opportunities for group projects/competitions."
As per a recent finding published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the research team analysed self-reported sleep quality and quantity from teenagers and found that there was a significant relationship between poor sleep and mental health issues.
Institute heads reiterated similar solutions in tackling depression and poor mental health. Deepika Thapar Singh, principal, Credence High School, said: "The need of the hour is addressing the mental well-being of students. All schools need to ensure that children feel safe and calm during this pandemic time. Learning happens better when the mind is at peace. Constant strategies such as a proper sleep cycle and opportunities to connect with friends after school are shared with students. Calmness and preparedness can be contagious and this is the key which can make our children feel more confident during this time."
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