KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 7 ― After having attended home-based online classes for months, Alina (not her real name) felt nervous at the thought of returning to school.

This 10-year-old girl, who lived here with her single father, not only had to cope with social anxiety but was also ashamed of the scars on her hands and legs as a result of the frequent beatings she endured from her father who had been under too much stress after he lost his job last year following the enforcement of the movement control order (MCO).

He took out his anger and frustration on his daughter and warned her not to tell anyone about the beatings.

Alina felt hopeless as she had no one to talk to about her problems. In fact, the girl even contemplated suicide at one point because she no longer wanted to live in an abusive environment.

Fortunately for Alina, a neighbour came to know of her plight and reported the matter to the authorities. The girl is now in safe hands.

According to The State of the World’s Children 2021 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), titled “On My Mind: Promoting, Protecting and Caring for Children’s Mental Health”, at least one in seven children and young people around the world lived under stay-at-home policies for most of 2020, leading to them developing feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation.

In Malaysia, statistics on suicides released by the police in July this year revealed that 872 or half of the cases recorded between January 2019 and May 2021 involved adolescents aged between 15 and 18.

Meanwhile, the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey findings revealed that 424,000 children in Malaysia had mental health problems.

Unicef Malaysia Chief of Child Protection Sarah Norton-Staal said even before Covid-19, children and young people carried the burden of mental health conditions without significant investment in addressing them.

“Since the start of the movement controls, children have had constrained access to socialisation, play and even physical contact, which are critical for their psychosocial well-being and development.

“Some of them may have experienced stress due to cramped living conditions, family financial pressure, family conflict and so forth. When children’s mental health is neglected, their ability to cope with stress, as well as their productivity, realising their potential and contributing back to the community are affected,” she told Bernama in an interview recently.

Back to school

Schools nationwide are reopening in stages starting October 3 after having been closed most of the time since the start of the MCO in March last year.

As children return to their face-to-face teaching and learning sessions, many are likely to be filled with anxiety. Some of them may be grieving over the loss of a loved one due to Covid-19, some may have suffered some form of abuse at home while others are likely experiencing some form of depression. 

Some children will struggle to learn in a classroom setting, trying to catch up with lessons they were not able to follow online. And, some children may have also developed other challenging emotional or behavioural problems, according to Unicef Malaysia Child Protection Specialist Selvi Supramaniam.

She said although many may find it exciting to return to school, it will be a challenging affair for teachers, parents and students.

She said in August 2020 Unicef Malaysia partnered with the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the International Association of Counselling Malaysia (PERKAMA International) to address the mental health aspect of children,

The partnership saw a total of 120 school counsellors and special education teachers from 48 primary and secondary schools nationwide undergoing training to provide mental health and psychosocial support services to schoolchildren, parents and teachers by taking a whole of school approach.

“This includes extending support to them through tele-counselling and PFA (psychosocial first aid) and imparting positive parenting skills. Specialised mental health support is also extended to children with disabilities, among others,” said Selvi.

She said increasing and strengthening access to mental health services in schools by taking a whole of school approach will minimise risk factors and maximise protective factors for mental health in key areas of children’s lives.

Unicef Malaysia Education Specialist Azlina Kamal said the collaboration with MoE also involved an initiative called “Voices of Covid Generation” ― powered by social enterprise Arus Academy ― where students expressed struggling with school closures and feeling depressed, with some of them even explicitly mentioning suicidal tendencies. 

“The children’s education, food, safety and health are also at risk due to rising family stress levels as a result of the pandemic. Immediate access to psychosocial support is critical,” she said.

Azlina said there are also risks to children being online, especially when unsupervised, and these include exposure to online sexual abuse, cyberbullying, risk-taking online behaviour and potentially harmful content, as well as privacy issues.  

“A lack of access to services and opportunities, and money and support from friends, family and the community have been the key risk factors children were facing during this pandemic,” she added.

Partnership with LPPKN

Meanwhile, Norton-Staal said Unicef Malaysia has partnered with the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) to address parenting support, noting that effective parenting has a critical role in mitigating mental health problems that children might face, especially during the pandemic. 

She said Unicef supported the development of a number of modules to strengthen parenting support, including helping parents cope with child online protection.

“With so many children being online all the time, some parents might not be familiar with what their children are doing online.

“With our guidelines and modules, the parents can teach their children how to access learning and social resources on the Internet and also, at the same time, educate them on the risks of being online,” she added.

In addition to developing new modules on parenting support, efforts to reach out to parents and increase their capacity were modified with the onset of Covid-19 to include online parenting tips. 

Compared to the previous face-to-face training sessions, these digital tips and “parent text” messages have been very popular and are more easily accessed by a larger number of parents.

Norton-Staal also said that helplines are recognised as an important tool and resource for children experiencing mental health problems and that it is important to strengthen existing helplines in Malaysia to ensure that appropriately trained staff are providing the necessary support to children.

“These lines should be open 24/7 and should ideally be designed for the use of children only, as per international standards,” she said, adding that in Malaysia, the Talian Kasih 15999 helpline does provide an opportunity for children to report cases of abuse or violence. ― Bernama

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