Olashore: All Stakeholders Must Get Involved in Children’s Mental Health

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From all indications, the rate of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents has been on the increase in Nigeria as in other parts of the world, leading to undesirable outcomes in some cases. In this interview with Ugochukwu Aliogo, the Chairman, Board of Trustees of Olashore International School, Prince Abimbola Olashore suggests that all stakeholders-parents, schools and governments must work together in preventing the incidents from snowballing into national crisis. Excerpts:

Available research suggests that there has been an upsurge in the incidents of mental and emotional crisis among youths especially school age children. Why do you think this is so?

It is ironical that as children get healthier physically (due to improved medical care and nutrition, amongst others), their mental health seems to be on the decline. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today. (Psychology Today)

Several reasons have been put forward to explain this. One of such is the excessive screen time spent on electronic gadgets. This causes disconnect from the real, immediate surroundings and more focus on the distant, virtual world on social media. Society is also said to have shifted from an intrinsic value system to a more extrinsic, materialistic one where one is judged by looks, and material acquisitions. There is the pressure to look, act and think like popular celebrities or people from foreign cultures, leading to a deep seated feeling of lack of control over who one really is.

How bad do you think the problem is?

Current mental health statistics place 10 per cent of young people and children as having a clinically diagnosable mental health problem. Of this, about 70 per cent do not get appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.

Do you think the appropriate levels of governments in the country are prepared for this?

Current national mental health policy documents do not reflect sufficient provision for child and adolescent mental health which means that at all levels, the focus on it is lacking. One of the reasons being that there exists insufficient baseline data for convincing advocacy. There still remains the need for national epidemiological surveys on childhood mental health issues to inform decisions. Actions to promote mental health should include national mental health programmes, laws and policies, which then filter down to development of mentally healthy communities and physical environments and providing of opportunities for leisure activities at the grassroots

What role do you think the private sector, especially schools should play?

Schools should be more proactive in mental health promotion and inculcate activities that improve access to mental health care, promote wellness and resilience. Child safety and anti-bullying policies should be well stated and implemented. Mental health needs can be integrated into the school curriculum. This will increase awareness of such issues and help reduce stigma. Teachers and support staff should also be empowered to recognise and adequately address early warning signs in affected children. The pressure to excel academically is one that children face both in school and at home. In most schools, only academic awards are recognized, putting pressure on children who are struggling academically but gladly, that trend is changing. Children have different talents and capabilities and when properly nurtured and celebrated in these differing areas, they cope better in other areas.

What role do you think parents should play?

Parenting practices and expectations, socio-economic status and mental health all have an impact on the mental health of a child. Parents and families play a vital role in helping children understand and manage emotions, develop resilience and foster positive relationships. Strong family relationships and support from infancy have a positive effect on children’s mental health. Where this is lacking or where expectations are unrealistic and there is insensitivity to the needs of the child, the outcome is usually adverse and detrimental to the mental development of the child.

Are there models anywhere in the world that the federal government can follow in addressing this issue?

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Mental Health Gap Action Programme published guidelines for mental health interventions. This is presently being customised and implemented by several countries who have designed their own mental health management models based on the guidelines.

Over the years, people that have suffered some emotional crisis have been stigmatized and avoided by the society; why is this so and how can it be corrected?

Stigma has always been a major challenge for sufferers of mental health disorders. It affects their health seeking behaviour and in some cases, worsens whatever condition they are battling with. Society has some general stereotyped views about mental illness, most of which are erroneous. Sufferers are viewed as dangerous, criminal and possessed with evil spirits. Unfortunately, some health workers also hold the same views. Mental health issues are also not as talked about as physical health matters so generally, there is poor understanding of the

In Nigeria, mental health services are still not readily available to the populace; little has been done to raise awareness about mental health or to address the stigma associated with it. Several NGOs and some state Governments such as Lagos and Edo, are actively engaged in improving mental health services and combating stigma and discrimination. As understanding of mental health issues increase with improved access to mental health services, stigma is expected to reduce.

Is there any reason you are organising a seminar around mental health?

As one of the leading educational organisations in Nigeria, Olashore International School has always been at the forefront of educational initiatives in Nigeria. In recent times, we have become acutely aware of how mental health issues are impacting on young people and the challenges this causes for parents and caregivers. The aim of organising the seminar, which is done in conjunction with the Lagos Business School and other partners is to raise awareness and allow parents to hear from other parents and young people who have experience of these issues and provide access to professionals in field.

What do you hope to achieve with the seminar?

This programme is aimed at reducing the stigma attached to and increasing awareness of mental health problems particularly in children and teenagers; help parents and caregivers understand and identify early signs of mental illness in their wards and improve access to professional help where needed.