Dubai: Child mental health in focus after Grade 7 boy goes missing

Experts offer tips to spot signs of depression and advocate for impactful parental strategies

by

Mazhar Farooqui

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Image used for illustrative purpose
Image used for illustrative purpose

Published: Wed 6 Dec 2023, 4:14 PM

Last updated: Thu 7 Dec 2023, 9:03 AM

Following the recent incident in Dubai where a Grade 7 student went missing but has since been safely reunited with his family, the spotlight has turned to the critical role parents play in supporting the emotional well-being of their adolescent children.

The 11-year-old boy disappeared from Arabian Ranches on Tuesday, triggering an extensive search by Dubai Police, which included the use of drones and sniffer dogs. The child was eventually located after midnight. His aunt revealed that the “highly sensitive” child grappled with emotional distress due to not meeting the expected marks in his exams.

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Child mental health professionals in the UAE emphasised that this incident serves as a reminder of the challenges young individuals may face and the importance of equipping parents with the tools to navigate the delicate phase of adolescence.

Arpita Anand, an adolescent and adult counselling psychologist at Openminds Psychiatry and Counseling and Neuroscience Centre, acknowledged that academic pressure is one of the most common triggers at this age. "Adolescence is a critical phase of development, both physically and mentally. During this period, they tend to seek greater independence and may engage in risk-taking behaviours," said Anand. "They need the right support and guidance as they may not be equipped to make informed decisions. Dealing with setbacks is often difficult for teens and adolescents, lacking the necessary coping mechanisms to process failure; they tend to personalise it."

Arpita Anand
Arpita Anand

Dubai-based brain coach Vidya Venkat emphasised the significant impact of academic stress on children aged 10-14. Venkat explained, "Children's brains at this age are still developing, and academic stress can trigger a fight-or-flight response, impacting their ability to focus, process information, and manage emotions."

She highlighted the importance of open communication between parents and children, fostering an environment where concerns can be expressed without fear of judgement.

Vidya Venkat
Vidya Venkat

Venkat suggested effective parental strategies, such as promoting a balanced approach—encouraging a healthy equilibrium between academics and leisure activities. Additionally, parents should focus on effort, not just achievement, by acknowledging their child's hard work and dedication, regardless of the outcome.

"Understanding and addressing academic stress is vital for your child's mental well-being. As parents, your support and guidance can make a profound difference in their ability to cope with these pressures," added Vidya.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is the third leading cause of illness and disability for adolescents aged 10 to 19, with suicide ranking as the third leading cause of death globally among teens. A report by International Health Policies reveals that in the UAE, between 17 and 22% of youth experience depressive symptoms.

Ms Arfa Banu, clinical psychologist at Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai, defines mental disorder in children as a pattern or changes in thinking, feeling, or behaviour that can cause distress or disturbance, hindering the child's ability to function. She said parents often face difficulty in comprehending these symptoms, creating a barrier to seeking timely treatment.

Ms Arfa Banu
Ms Arfa Banu

Dr Nada Omer Mohamed Elbashir, consultant psychiatrist at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, underscores the significance of child mental health as a crucial component of overall well-being. She emphasises the importance of being vigilant about signs and symptoms of conditions like depression and anxiety in children. Dr. Elbashir stresses that from a psychiatric perspective, early identification of these signs can pave the way for timely intervention and crucial support for the child.

Dr Nada Omer Mohamed Elbashir
Dr Nada Omer Mohamed Elbashir

Are you missing these signs?

While each adolescent is unique, and the manifestation of emotional distress varies, Dr. Elbashir highlighted some common signs that parents can watch out for.

Depression in children

Persistent sadness or irritability: Children with depression may exhibit a persistent low mood, sadness, or irritability, often without a clear cause.

Loss of interest: They may lose interest in activities that they used to enjoy, including hobbies, sports, or spending time with friends.

Changes in appetite and sleep: Changes in eating habits (either overeating or loss of appetite) and sleep disturbances (insomnia or excessive sleeping) may be observed.

Low energy and fatigue: Children with depression might appear tired, sluggish, or complain of physical discomfort without any apparent medical cause.

Feelings of worthlessness or guilt: They may express feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or self-blame, even for minor incidents.

Difficulty concentrating: Depression can lead to difficulty focusing, making decisions, and concentrating on tasks.

Physical complaints: Some children may express vague physical complaints such as stomach aches or headaches.

Social withdrawal: They might withdraw from social interactions, avoid friends and family, or become isolated.

Anxiety in children

Excessive worry: Children with anxiety may worry excessively about various aspects of their lives, such as school performance, social interactions, or family matters.

Physical symptoms: Anxiety can manifest as physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, muscle tension, or fatigue.

Avoidance: They may avoid situations or activities that trigger their anxiety, such as attending school, participating in social events, or trying new things.

Irritability: Some children may become irritable, especially when feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

Sleep disturbances: Anxiety can lead to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing frequent nightmares.

Perfectionism: Some children may exhibit perfectionist tendencies and be overly self-critical about their performance and achievements.

Panic attacks: In severe cases, children with anxiety disorders may experience panic attacks characterised by intense fear, rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, and a sense of impending doom.

Elbashir emphasised that some of these signs could also indicate other issues. “It is crucial for a qualified mental health professional to conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine an accurate diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan for the child, she said, adding early recognition and intervention are key.

Dr Elabashir said some of these signs could also be indicative of other issues, so it’s crucial for a qualified mental health professional to conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine an accurate diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan for the child, adding, “Early recognition and intervention are key.”

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