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World Mental Health Day | How to make sure the kids are alright

Taking care of mental health should be like children brushing their teeth, a daily habit that guards against a build-up of mental ‘plaque’

Launched this week ahead of World Mental Health Day, 'C Is For Cat D Is For Depression' is drawn from the author's personal experience of dealing with depression as a child.
Launched this week ahead of World Mental Health Day, 'C Is For Cat D Is For Depression' is drawn from the author's personal experience of dealing with depression as a child.

In the last quarter of her new book, C Is For Cat D Is For Depression (Scholastic India, 495), Kairavi Bharat Ram hurls a couple of riders at the reader: “But is anyone really normal? Is anyone really fine?”

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Received wisdom tells society to keep young minds away from such troubling questions. But Ram wants her readers—whatever age they may be—to confront existential conundrums head-on. “I want to show them that dark and twisted can coexist with bright and shiny,” she says.

Launched this week ahead of World Mental Health Day (10 October), the book is drawn from Ram’s personal experience of dealing with depression as a child. The 22-year-old writer of two previous books, who also runs a popular make-up blog, suffered for years. “I remember thinking and feeling in metaphors,” she says, “as though I was surrounded by a radio of doom and gloom.”

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The author of the book is Kairavi Bharat Ram, with illustrations by Priya Kuriyan
The author of the book is Kairavi Bharat Ram, with illustrations by Priya Kuriyan

The protagonist of her latest book, a young girl, externalizes her feelings through the powerful visuals created by the gifted artist and illustrator Priya Kuriyan. Waves of grey trickle down pages, a burst of yellow lights up a spread, the heavy burden of blue feels almost crushing, but is eventually redeemed by a sparkling rainbow. Kuriyan’s colours express as much as Ram’s words. She uses the human form sparingly, focusing closely on faces, while complementing the cadence of Ram’s minimalist narrative, which unfolds in short rhyming couplets.

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Caring for mental health should be a daily habit for us all, says child psychotherapist Nupur Dhingra Paiva. “Just as we clean our teeth every day, mental health functions best when you have simple hygiene habits,” she says. If you don’t take care of your emotional reaction backlog, the emotions get stuck, like food particles between teeth, and create mental “plaque”.“Such feelings need to be processed and rinsed off,” adds Paiva, who has also written a fine book, Love And Rage: The Inner Worlds Of Children.

2020 has been an extraordinarily tough year for everyone, but especially so for children. Cut off from schools, playgrounds, extended families, friends and loved ones, their lives have shrunk into screens. According to a recent report based on a survey of 3,000 parents in the US, screen time for children has gone up by up to 500% during the pandemic. With plenty of studies linking screen use and mental disorders, we are staring as much at a mental health pandemic as the one caused by the novel coronavirus.

“A therapist is usually not the first port of call for parents with young children,” Paiva says. “By the time children come to us, they have often already developed serious behavioural issues.” It takes patient listening—play, storytelling, and paying close attention—to get an idea of what’s going on in their mind. “Our job as therapists is to take everything that comes out of the child’s mouth seriously,” Paiva adds. “Be it so-called irrational fears or nightmares, we acknowledge their existence.”

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That’s a huge step in the right direction. If you offer platitudes to children instead—especially of the “everything will be all right” variety—you are likely to leave a detrimental effect. The child won’t believe you and, worst, their trust in you may be shaken. “They will read it as a sign that you don’t really want to know what’s really going on inside their mind,” says Paiva. “That you don’t really want to know because you don’t listen.”

Paiva’s advice to parents of young children is to pay special attention to them at bedtime. It is the hour when children are most likely to reveal what’s on their mind. And that’s why reading stories in bed can be a therapeutic exercise. So the next time you are planning to pick up something to read to your child, C Is For Cat D Is For Depression may be a good one to start them on a mental health hygiene routine.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    10.10.2020 | 08:00 AM IST

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