Long school break may leave kids depressed, warn experts

Mental health experts say most children look forward to school and that the long break will affect them in different ways.

PETALING JAYA: Mental health experts warn that the extended break from school due to the Covid-19 pandemic may cause depression in some students, as most schools remain closed despite classroom sessions resuming in stages for those taking public examinations and children returning to kindergarten and preschool today.

Consultant paediatrician Dr Zulkifli Ismail told FMT that the break, which began on March 14 and continued under the ensuing lockdown, would affect children in different ways.

“Some children will be affected by the lack of contact with their friends and peers. How they cope depends on their interaction with their parents and other siblings,” said Zulkifli, who is also secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Paediatric Association.

Dr Zulkifli Ismail.

In a recent report, London-based NGO Save The Children noted that prolonged stress, boredom and social isolation, as well as a lack of outdoor play, could lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children such as anxiety and even depression. But these findings are not specific to Malaysia.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Subash Kumar Pillai told FMT that most of his school-going patients said they were unhappy without the human interaction, play or other spontaneous activity which school afforded them.

“While they may not be clinically depressed, many have had a hard time coming to terms with not being able to meet their friends in school,” he said.

“The lack of human contact has affected a lot of children. They are not depressed, but they are definitely affected by it. Children are supposed to go to school and make friends. They can do all the video calls in the world but at the end of the day, they need that human contact.”

Save The Children recently found that almost one in four children living under lockdown restrictions and school closures was dealing with feelings of anxiety, with many at risk of lasting psychological distress such as depression.

Dr Subash Kumar Pillai.

In China, a survey to measure symptoms of depression and anxiety among 1,784 primary students in Wuhan and Huangshi, who were restricted to their homes for around a month, found that 23% and 19% of them reported depressive and anxiety symptoms, respectively.

Across the world, the issue of depression stemming from the Covid-19-induced school break is especially acute for children who face stresses in their home environment such as poverty or violence, who and look at school as a safe haven.

There is also another group of children who are eager to return to school because it gives them an opportunity to prove themselves by shining academically.

“We know that some of our children are motivated,” said psychiatrist Dr Ahmad Rostam Md Zin.

“Some parents put pressure on them to perform, and these children want to prove themselves to their parents. The only way to do that is to get back to school.”

Rostam said that while parents had a key role to play in identifying mental health issues in their children, these issues were often a result of underlying stress in the parents.

A survey by local think tank The Centre in April showed that nearly half of the respondents reported negative well-being during the movement control order period.

The survey of 1,084 respondents also found that those living in low-cost housing showed more severe signs of mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

“The most important thing is for parents to be calm and in control,” said Rostam.

“Some of us are too worried about Covid-19, and this unusual anxiety and uneasiness can be felt by our children.”

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