NGOs in Malaysia reveal the impact of Covid-19 on children’s mental health

A World Vision household survey finds children experiencd severe stress and mental illness during lockdown. — Picture courtesy of World Vision Malaysia
A World Vision household survey finds children experiencd severe stress and mental illness during lockdown. — Picture courtesy of World Vision Malaysia

PETALING JAYA, Oct 1 — It has been dubbed the most unprecedented health crisis of our time but the Covid-19 pandemic is also a socio-economic crisis and a humanitarian crisis, exposing growing inequality and its lasting impact.

For vulnerable children across the globe, their families’ loss of income will mean basic access to water, food, education and healthcare are harder to come by.

The crisis also puts children at a higher risk of abuse, exploitation and violence.

“Regardless whether it is locally or globally, the economic consequences of the movement control order or lockdown are increasing safety risks for already vulnerable children.

“They are on the brink of being pushed into deeper vulnerability,” World Vision Malaysia public engagement head Arthur Chan told Malay Mail.

Interviews with key informants also revealed incidents of online exploitation, neglect, and child trafficking.

“The stress on families related to the loss of income, reduced access to schooling, and changes to children’s behaviour during quarantine contributes to an increase in the physical and emotional abuse of children.”

69 per cent of children experienced psychological aggression

A recent World Vision household survey conducted found 19 per cent of children experienced severe stress and five per cent have experienced mental illness during lockdown.

Sixty-nine per cent children surveyed in the region said their parents used physical punishment and/or psychological aggression.

“Respondents mentioned the rise in abuse and violence was due to the stress of lockdown measures, the loss of jobs and school closures which have resulted in families spending more time together.

“All of these have contributed to families’ rising fears about their security, health, and future.

In Malaysia, which announced the movement control order (MCO) in March, disparities between urban and rural communities are brought to the fore.”

Dignity for Children’s Rebecca Segran says emotional abuse normally coexists with physical or sexual abuse. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Dignity for Children’s Rebecca Segran says emotional abuse normally coexists with physical or sexual abuse. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

The non-profit which works with the most vulnerable children and communities in Mukim Tulid and Mukim Tatalaan in Sabah observed that children in rural communities didn’t have access to telecommunication services or their own devices for them to participate in e-learning.

Children with special needs face a bigger challenge in coping with their studies.

On top of not being able to go to clinics for treatment and regular check-ups due to the suspension of public transportation, there was a shortage of masks, sanitisers and sanitary products for girls.

All these challenges have a profound impact on children’s mental health.

“Children have negative feelings and feel restricted during the pandemic.

“Children felt anxious and worried as they struggled with distance learning, despite some of them having access to the internet,” Chan said.

He also added that Sabah field staff could only maintain contact through phone communication in areas that have reception, pointing out that many villages in rural Sabah have no phone reception.

Teachers as frontliners to spot mental health problems

Kuala Lumpur-based non-governmental organisation Dignity for Children which has over 1,700 refugee, stateless and undocumented children under its care believe teachers play a crucial role in identifying mental health problems.

During the MCO, Dignity teachers tried to preserve a sense of normalcy with online classes.

“Teachers are also ensuring students get to share and exchange thoughts and have a safe platform to share their fears, concerns or any problems they’re facing mentally,” Dignity for Children social worker Rebecca Segran said.

“Due to the continued active engagement with the children, we were able to sieve out cases where the parents were severely punishing the children,” she said.

“The parents meant well but we had to intervene via phone counselling to advise them to change their methods and that’s where the welfare and mental health departments stepped in.”

Dignity’s mental health unit created material to explain Covid-19 to children and formulated worksheets with graphic emoticons to help children navigate their emotions.

“It’s a step by step guide on what to do if they are sad or have negative emotions,” Rebecca said.

Dignity provides a range of counselling from play therapy to assessment and talk therapy, enabling them to manage behavioural disorders including ADHD, dyslexia and emotional disturbances due to abuse or experiencing life from war-torn countries.

She added that younger children who lack the vocal competence to express their complaints endure abuse in a different way compared to older children.

That’s when teachers who are trained to pick up warning signs come in because abuse doesn’t occur exclusively.

“If you have emotional abuse, it will coexist with physical or sexual abuse and you’ll see the signs.

“Teachers are trained to lookout for any drastic behavioural change being socially withdrawn, sudden onset of depression, attention-seeking disruptive behaviour and also bruises and things like a sudden fracture.”

She also anticipates an onslaught of mental health and child protection cases as an impact of the pandemic, particularly cyber grooming which has risen during the pandemic.

“We’re advising parents to monitor this, whether it’s for stateless children or our own it’s something to look into,” Rebecca said.

Children are resilient creatures

Despite the grim reality that littlest members of society have to endure under these circumstances, there is hope.

At the Shelter Home for Children, an NGO that shelters abused, neglected and abandoned children, the MCO was a positive experience.

The three homes in the Klang Valley are currently home to some 33 children between the ages of four and 18, normally referred to them by the Welfare Department under court orders.

The halfway home serves as legal guardian to some of the children if their abuser is a family member or if their home isn’t safe.

Shelter Home for Children senior home manager GP Joseph is pleasantly surprised children at the halfway house adapted well to the new normal. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Shelter Home for Children senior home manager GP Joseph is pleasantly surprised children at the halfway house adapted well to the new normal. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

According to senior home manager, GP Joseph these children usually suffer from physical and sexual abuse.

So when the MCO was enforced, he was rightfully worried about what being confined 24/7 would do to their mental wellbeing.

“But then I noticed our group chat was silent the entire time which usually buzzes non-stop with lots of problems.

“During the three months, there were almost zero issues and I was wondering what happened?” he said.

In an unexpected turn, the children surprised their caretakers but performed chores without being told and started cooking, baking, painting and drawing.

“They started cleaning the home so much so that the manager in the home informed us that we no longer need a cleaner.

“Them taking up initiatives was a surprise to me, I did not expect that,” Joseph said.

He believes the children, despite their traumatic past, were able to rise to the occasion because of the support system the home provided and having similar-aged companions around them whom they could confide in.

Joseph did admit that some experienced cabin fever at first but counsellors constantly spoke to them to allay any anxieties.

The kids were also able to contact family members on video calls which gave them some semblance of normalcy.

“In the 20 years of working with children, I’m always amazed that children will adapt to their environment.

“Yes, there’s trauma for them to overcome but because there are other children, they’re able to mix well and live harmoniously together.

“That’s the advantage of our home setup, they’re able to forget what they’ve gone through temporarily,” Joseph said.

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