By Dr. Prakriti Poddar
The importance of psychological well-being for the healthy growth and development of children and teenagers cannot be underlined enough. Unaddressed mental morbidity or psychological disorders in children can impede their cognitive and emotional development, and render them unfit to cope with social stress and pressures of a growing up world. Unfortunately, the mental health of children and adolescents remains an under addressed subject in India.
According to different estimates, incidence of psychological problems among children and adolescents is high in India. A recent study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences found that almost one out of five adolescents in India suffered from some level of mental morbidity. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four children between 13 and 15 years of age suffer from depression in India.
Mental health disorders in children
Other mental health disorders among children may include:
- anxiety disorders, mood disorders
- post traumatic stress disorders
- attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or
- drug abuse
Mental health problems in children: What are the causes?
Among causes of the rising incidence of mental health problems in children include:
- performance pressure
- high parental expectations
- conflict-ridden families
- peer-to-peer relationships,
- Internet or digital device addiction or
- substance abuse
Unfortunately, children find it more difficult than adults to express themselves and reach out for help. It is important therefore to closely watch children and observe them for any anomalous behavior such as social withdrawal, recurrent physical distress or fatigue, phobias, sleep disorders etc.
Increasingly, mental health experts are advocating the need to adopt a holistic approach to mental health management particularly when dealing with psychological duress among children and adolescents.
Holistic approach required in mental health management
Traditionally, mental health experts take recourse to therapy and medication while dealing with mental health disorders. However, it is important to understand that when it comes to children and adolescents, a number of factors may be responsible for triggering the psychological problem.
These factors may include:
- unhealthy diet
- nutritional deficiencies
- inadequate physical activity
- addiction to digital devices, parental conflict or abuse in the family,
- image issues or
- lack of emotional acceptance.
Evidence shows that adopting the holistic approach in managing mental health in adolescents and children proves to be more fruitful as compared to the traditional therapy-based approach.
Holistic approach involves treating individuals by taking into account not just their symptoms but also their physical health, environment and social factors.
For example, if exposure to abuse in the family is triggering a mental health condition in a teenager, it is equally important to address the trigger by counseling parents and family members. Similarly, developing a sense of positive psychology in the child through a series of activities further complements the traditional therapy.
Adopting a holistic approach to mental health and implementing these techniques such as yoga, meditation, art therapy etc on a wider section of population can also help us prevent mental health disorders from occurring.
Holistic mental health management for children
It is important to identify holistic management strategies in the Indian context that children and adolescents can use to improve and maintain mental health on an everyday basis. These strategies must not necessarily focus on children with existing mental health disorders but bring all children and adolescents under their ambit through their adoption in schools and residential communities.
Boost mental health with yoga and meditation
The beneficial impact of yoga and meditation on mental health is widely known. Yoga and meditative practices help align the body and the mind, give the practicing individual greater control over the mind and significantly reduces stress and ability to cope. A number of studies have shown that meditation reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, a study at Johns Hopkins University found that meditation can be as effective in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression as antidepressants. Meditation is also known to reduce symptoms of ADHD symptoms, improve mindfulness and concentration.
Lifestyle and nutrition vis a vis mental health
The crucial role played by lifestyle habits and nutrition in shaping the mental health of individuals is often inadequately understood. Eating nutritious food rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is very important to keep the brain nourished and protect it from oxidative stress. For example, some studies have found that probiotics in diet tend to improve stress perception and symptoms of anxiety. Similarly, studies have also revealed that people consuming typical western diets that are rich in processed foods and high sugar content have higher susceptibility towards depression as compared to people who consume traditional diets with unprocessed foods, fruits and vegetables.
Exercise and physical activity have similarly been found to have a beneficial effect on mental health. It is therefore very important to take into account the nutritional and lifestyle factors while addressing mental health challenges among the young.
Involvement in creative expressions such as art and writing helps individuals express their suppressed emotions and allows them to better cope with stress and emotional duress. Studies have suggested that art therapy can be very helpful in achieving healing for people with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Social support groups and encouraging emotional acceptance
For children and teenagers who often find it difficult to express themselves, establishing effective support groups that encourage them to talk without being judged is another important intervention as far as holistic management of mental health is concerned. Mental health practitioners can partner schools, colleges and residential communities to establish such support groups that bring about a sense of emotional acceptance among children and prevent them from repressing emotions.
(An expert on mental health related issues, the columnist is Director Poddar Wellness Ltd., Managing Trustee of Poddar Foundation. Views expressed are the author's own.)
(Disclaimer – This is an informative article. Please consult a medical professional/doctor/expert before starting any therapy/treatment.)