UAE: Covid-19 pandemic, social media compounding mental health issues in youngsters

Children have developed anxiety in social situations due to lack of exposure and restricted social opportunities, experts say



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by

Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Mon 10 Oct 2022, 8:09 AM

Last updated: Mon 10 Oct 2022, 7:44 PM

When her usually chirpy 9-year-old daughter started having episodes of anxiety and night terrors, Dubai mother M thought that it was a phase that she would eventually outgrow. However, the anxiety transformed into physical symptoms.

“She had a stomachache and we kept telling ourselves and her that’s it’s not a real stomach problem,” she said. “Then came the loss of appetite and finally she started throwing up from it. That is when I knew that she needed help.”

A child psychologist diagnosed M’s daughter with PTSD due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had all tested positive for Covid early in 2022,” she said. “After having lived through the pandemic and lockdown, she thought that we would all die from the disease. Also, she missed out on meeting some close family members during our quarantine. All of those came tumbling out as anxiety and PTSD.”

Rise in mental health issues

According to experts, M’s daughter is one of an increasing number of children who are grappling with mental health issues after the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. Several children and adolescents are facing multiple emotional and behavioural issues.

“Rapid rise in social anxiety is one of the serious concerns seen amongst people post pandemic period,” said Dr Reena Thomas, Clinical Psychologist, Medeor Hospital, Dubai. “Children, regardless of age, developed anxiety in social situations due to lack of exposure and restricted social opportunities. They were mostly isolated and limited to gadgets. They failed to develop adequate social skills required of their age. Their self-esteem also got compromised at a higher level.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in seven 10 to 19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder. Failure to address it properly could limit opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.

“There is so much expected from youngsters,” said Farhaana Ismail, a teen confidence life coach. “They are expected to conform, to perform and to shine. The advent of social media doesn’t make it any easier with this vision of an idealized reality that often can’t be met. They are so pressured, probably more so than any other time in history. They are constantly dealing with a changing world reality.”

Parents’ role in dealing with children's mental health

According to experts, parents must play a central role in providing adequate care to youngsters with mental health issues. Dr Reena warns parents to watch out for telling signs.

“Parents need to be open to help-seeking from professionals,” she said. “They need to be cautious if they notice persistent behavioural and emotional concerns in children. Children may be more withdrawn. School refusal, somatic concerns, anxiety symptoms, and changed sleep and eating habits should not be neglected. Gradual exposures along with contingency procedures, and social skill training at an individual or group level can be helpful.”

This was seconded by M, who said she is now working on strengthening her daughter’s spirit and training her to be positive about most situations. “I have enrolled her in drama club, poetry and netball,” she said. “We have been advised to watch out for sudden changes in her extrovert nature. If ever she isolates herself in social and school settings, then we should intervene. Knowing the situation and what her triggers are helpful as we know now how to manage it.”

Farhaana says that the change in attitude towards mental health has been very helpful in ensuring that adequate support is available for those who need it. “It’s not so much a stigma any more to seek help for mental health issues,” she said. “It’s becoming more accepted. These mental health challenges have always existed but now it’s more accepted to shine our light on it.”

According to Dr Reena, weaning children off gadgets and encouraging outdoor activities can make a tremendous difference. “It will provide more opportunities for socialization,” she said.

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