A 12-old-girl in therapy tells me: “I am always sad. My mom asked if someone was bullying me. I have a lot of friends, and no one bullies me. My mom thinks I am worried because a lot of my friends’ parents are getting divorced. But I am not. I feel guilty for worrying my parents.”
The girl was in therapy as she couldn’t sleep, and teachers had seen her cry in school on different occasions. Since she was a quiet student and doing well in school, no one had noticed this earlier.
Over the last five years, the number of children and teenagers reaching out for therapy has increased significantly, to the extent that sometimes I have got emails directly from children who are minors and don’t know how to convince their parents to get them to therapy.
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When parents write to me, most emails talk about how their children are well-behaved and that they may need just two-three sessions to deal with what’s on their mind or to learn techniques to handle anxiety. But when these kids make it to therapy, particularly the teenagers, we always need more than three sessions because they are conflicted and dealing with difficult emotions. The awareness about children needing attention, mental health help, and resources needs to increase.
Seeing young children suffer emotionally, I can’t stop thinking about how we need to take responsibility for building psychologically safe spaces for them. There is a need to build a mental health curriculum for children in schools, where they learn about emotions, how to soothe themselves, and know that it’s okay to feel all kind of emotions.
When I was at a school, talking to children about “big feelings”, I asked them to write and draw what these big feelings felt like. A nine-year-old wrote the word “anger” and told me, “When I’m angry, it feels like my entire body is burning and I can’t do anything to make it stop”. By this time, he had tears rolling down his face and his best friend hugged him. I worked with the school and the child to address what was at the core of this, but the important realisation for me was that children, when given safe spaces and creative mediums to express themselves, find a language and then their emotions begin to show up.
I do know of schools which on Children’s Day and World Mental Health Day choose to touch upon on some aspect of mental health, but it’s not enough, given the mental health crisis young people are facing. A mental health curriculum needs to start early on, for children as young as three or four years, where using play, toys, art, sports, and conversations, we talk about pillars of well-being, protective factors that allow for good mental health, and make space for questions which children struggle with.
I once asked a class of teenagers to write down questions they struggled with and put the notes in a box to maintain anonymity. I was surprised by what unfolded—children had asked me questions about anticipatory grief, financial insecurity, plastic surgery and more. It was a reminder that children keep ruminating over some of these questions and on a lot of occasions, they don’t have anyone who they can openly ask to get the right information. We do know that half-baked knowledge and answers from the internet are dangerous, and we don’t want our young minds to depend on those.
Mental health needs to become a part of larger conversations, whether it’s a prompt in art class, theatre, a topic for English literature class, or even a summer camp that delves into an aspect of well-being using fun, sports, and creative expression. How our children will see the world, build hope, and deepen community is a function of how seen they feel and the degree to which their emotions and well-being is taken in to account.
A mental health curriculum is a step in that direction.
Heart of the Matter is a fortnightly column about emotionall well-being by Sonali Gupta, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.