Protecting Mental Health of Families in a Pandemic

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Education, Global, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs Opinion

The impact of pandemics on the mental health outcomes of children and their families must be explored as a distinct phenomenon. We suggest three ways to enable this

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Credit: Unsplash /Melanie Wasser.

ABUJA, Jan 22 2021 (IPS) – Dealing with COVID-19-related city lockdowns has been exceptionally stressful, particularly for those parents who have had to balance work, personal life, children and elderly, providing home schooling or facilitating virtual learning, managing infection control within the home, and more, all while being disconnected from support services.

Beyond all this, other mediators and moderators play a key role in outcomes for parents and children, including their function and adaptation – sociodemographic, exposure, negative events, personality traits, and the experience of death among close family and friends.

It is therefore unsurprising the results of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health 2020 survey of child health concerns.

Clear links exist between mental health indicators and child-parent conflict and closeness, with anxious parents being particularly vigilant to responding to cues of children’s distress by encouraging them to express their opinions and providing support and acceptance of their decisions

The poll is a national sample of parents to rate the top health concerns for U.S. children and teens aged 0-18 years. A breakdown of the results shows the top ten concerns as follows: overuse of social media/screen time (72%); bullying/cyberbullying (62%); Internet safety (62%); unhealthy eating (59%); depression/suicide (54%); lack of physical activity (54%); stress/anxiety (54%); smoking/vaping (52%); drinking or using drugs (50%); and COVID-19 (48%).

The findings also show that parents’ biggest concerns for young people are associated with changes in lifestyle and mental health consequences of the pandemic.

There are fewer similar studies from the Global South; one study from China showed that the quarantine’s impact on children’s emotion and behaviour is mediated by the parents’ individual and group stress, with a stronger effect from the latter.

Parents who reported more difficulties in dealing with quarantine showed more stress, which in turn, increased the children’s problems. A study from Singapore explored work-family balance and social support and their links with parental stress. It revealed that lockdowns can be detrimental to parenting and marital harmony, especially for parents with poor work family balance and weak social support.

Clear links exist between mental health indicators and child-parent conflict and closeness, with anxious parents being particularly vigilant to responding to cues of children’s distress by encouraging them to express their opinions and providing support and acceptance of their decisions.

Previous studies have revealed that family structures who hold on their own in difficult times will best thrive and get past pandemic and other similar situations.

India’s lockdown declared without advance notice, saw many nuclear families from cities shift back to their ancestral towns for economic reasons. The lack of jobs, particularly in the informal sector, lack of resources to enrol children in online schooling and being cut off from health services and public transport made families shift back into joint family structures to support one another in times of uncertainties.

In Nigeria, the most severe impact of the pandemic on parenting is the loss of livelihoods among low-income families who earn daily within the informal economy – 65% of economic activities are within the informal sector. Most of them do not own bank accounts and may not have savings. The lockdown impacted these informal sector workers the most and consequently their ability to parent effectively.

Thus, the impact of pandemics on the mental health outcomes of children and their families must be explored as a distinct phenomenon. We suggest three ways to enable this:

Improve access to psycho-social support for families, parents and children during lockdowns in pandemic situations. Globally, there is a second wave of the pandemic. In the United Kingdom, the country is in total lockdown. This implies that families continue to deal with the challenges identified by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll.

Governments, civil society organisations, public health administrators must begin to assign social workers to visit families and help them deal with the mental health consequences of lockdowns. Conduct outreaches to provide emotional and mental health support for children and families in low-income communities with poor internet access.

An example from India is the The Mental Health Action Trust (MHAT) in Northern Kerala, that developed a unique mental health initiative that has a strong focus on empowering local communities and implementing mental health services through more than a thousand volunteers who run the community service.

Use technology to provide remote support to parents and children. When families are informed on how lockdowns could affect them, they are better prepared to deal with such challenges. Nigeria’s leading non-profit organisation providing mental health support, Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, has been reaching out to individuals through social media to help them deal with mental health consequences of the pandemic.

They do this via the Project COVID-19. Services provided include mental health assessment and linkage to counsellors, monthly virtual conversation café using WhatsApp to discuss coping skills and providing support to keep isolation journals. Such organisations are few in the global south and should be supported by government, international donors and the private sector to take their services to scale.

Finally, COVID-19 has changed the workplace and it is no longer business as usual. A significant amount of stress is attributed to juggling work life and home, employers should better support their employees to ease some of the pressure.

Companies should promote frequent check-ins and flexibility, more relaxed patterns of work schedules, incorporate breaks between intense work meetings, encourage recreational online family gatherings, time offs and financial incentives etc. Company health plans should include mental health care. Connecting families to mental health services is another great way to support parents, and therefore families.

COVID-19 is a reminder that countries must invest in epidemic preparedness. These investments should be family-centred to ensure that parents and caregivers are equipped to provide the best parenting possible.

 

Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor is a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He is a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. Ifeanyi is the Director Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch.

Dr Shubha Nagesh works for the Latika Roy Foundation in Dehradun, India. She is a senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. Shubha strives to make childhood disabilities a global health priority.

 

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