Q: Parents usually tend to prioritise physical health over mental health. How important is it for them to be aware of their children’s mental health? Is there enough awareness about it in our country?
Shelja: Parents need to be aware of their children’s emotional well-being and developmental needs. As far as our country is concerned, there is awareness; but, only in certain pockets. We need to make children’s mental health a priority across the country, at all levels of the socio-economic strata. We need to remove stigmas and streamline the discussions on this topic. This could be done through media, workshops in schools, awareness programmes for parents, teachers and all agencies involved with children.
Q: In today’s fast-paced world, children are exposed to a whole host of distractions. Does this make them more susceptible to poor mental health?
Shelja: Yes, there is an excessive use of gadgets, the Internet and social media. There are children who suffer from Internet addiction and also those who get violent if their gadgets are taken away from them. However, we need to be aware that many a time children who start depending on gadgets excessively have an underlying mental health problem. It is the same case with junk food and unhealthy sleeping habits. This is where parents play a big role in regulating healthier lifestyles.
Q: How can parents make their children aware of mental well-being and health?
Shelja: Parents can create awareness in their children by first building their own awareness. Depending on the age of the child, they can talk to them in the following ways:
- Using stories, movies and TV programmes for discussions on the main characters and their feelings.
- Sharing their own experiences on when they felt hurt, angry or scared and what they did to cope with such feelings.
- Teaching them to accept their struggles and difficulties and not expect them to be perfect at everything.
- Explaining how each person is different and how it helps to make the world a more interesting place.
The most important point parents should keep in mind is to listen to children when they talk about their problems without getting judgemental or blaming them.
Q: What factors can affect a child’s mental health?
- Family history of mental health problems
- Family conflicts
- Academic problems
- Relationship issues
- Trauma, abuse, etc.
Q: How are mental disorders diagnosed in young children? Are there any mental disorders or conditions that are commonly seen in children and teens?
- We use specific tests such as DSM 5 or ICD 10 to diagnose mental health problems.
- Depression, anxiety, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), refusal to attend school, ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), autism, learning disabilities, etc.
Q: How are children with mental health problems treated? Is it treatable at all?
Shelja: There is no mental health disorder that is not treatable. We follow a multimodal, multidisciplinary approach to work with children and adolescents where the professionals involved could be:
- Child and adolescent psychologists
- Child and adolescent psychiatrists
- Occupational therapists
- Developmental therapists
- Speech and Language Therapists
- Special Educators
We have various therapeutic approaches which include:
- Family therapy
- CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
- Play therapy
- Group therapy
- Therapy using expressive arts, etc.
Q: What lifestyle changes do you recommend to enhance a child’s mental health?
Shelja: Parents should ensure that children follow a routine, adopt regular sleep patterns, have a healthy diet, exercise well, have opportunities for socialising, enjoy family bonding and, most of all, are given enough play time.
Q: What role does a school play in ensuring that the child enjoys good mental health?
Shelja: The school plays a huge role in providing an emotionally safe space for children to grow, develop, express themselves, learn and take risks. Children need a community that accepts them for who they are, cares for their well-being and gives them a sense of belonging - no matter what their ability, disability, appearance, class, caste, religion or gender. Therefore, when children go through emotional difficulties, it is important that the school and parents come together to support them rather than blame them or each other.
Q: In your book, ‘All you need is love,’ you have mentioned the five anchors of parenting. Can you brief us about it?
Shelja: The five anchors of parenting are Connect, Coach, Care, Community and Commit. They are all interlinked and flow from one to another. Connect is the foundation - laying down nourishing soil replete with love, worthiness, joy, recognition and positive energy. Coaching is about building necessary life skills in children through an understanding of their unique wiring. Care is about nurturing ourselves for a more wholesome life. Community is about building caring ecosystems for children to live in. Commit is about sustaining courage and compassion for our whole-hearted journey of parenting.
Q: ‘Children First’ is a very different initiative and one that has grabbed the attention. What inspired you to take up such a cause?
Shelja: My husband, who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and I were very keen to set up a child and adolescent mental health services centre when we returned to Delhi from the UK in 2003. Our inspiration came from the amazing children and their families we had been meeting every day in our respective professions. Also our goal was not just to set up services for children with mental health difficulties; we also wanted to build awareness and sensitise people about children’s emotional needs. ‘Children First’ is a child and adolescent mental health institute where we offer clinical services, early intervention care for children with autism, school mental health programmes, community outreach and training programmes. The vision is simple, as expressed in our tagline, building a community of concern for all children.
Dr Shelja Sen is a child and adolescent psychologist, family therapist, and author of 'All You Need Is Love: The Art Of Mindful Parenting (Harper Collins)'