66 children and teenagers under the age of 18 have died by suicide in Kerala since March 25, a day after the countrywide lockdown was announced to contain COVID-19.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan revealed the shocking statistic in his press meet on Thursday evening, announcing the formation of a special committee headed by Director General of Police R Sreelekha, to study the issue. ‘Chiri’, an initiative by student police cadets to provide counselling and other services, was also announced.
Chief Minister Pinarayi said that the lockdown may have affected the state of mind of many children and they may be more sensitive to parents’ scolding or other domestic issues. While the reasons may seem as trivial as being scolded for playing a mobile game or bunking an online class, harsh words of parents may affect them gravely. The parents would have the best intentions for their wards but the children need not realise this, the Chief Minister said. He suggested that parents take a softer tone when talking to children during these times.
Experts state that, just like adults, children and adolescents face mental health issues like stress and depression. “It is not only in adults; children, especially adolescents, are prone to mental health issues like depression and stress which can, in some cases, possibly lead to suicides,” said Dr Sandeesh, clinical psychologist, Government Mental Health Centre, Kozhikode.
The commonly seen problems among children are issues related to school and family problems among others, Dr Sandeesh said. But in the context of lockdown, there are other sets of issues that children are facing which need to be addressed.
“Due to lockdown, unlike before, children are spending more time with their families. They cannot go to school, nor go out to play. This gives a chance for more possible parent-children clashes. Especially for adolescents, who are at a stage of their life where they have started to be more connected to their friends than their families, this can be more problematic,” says Dr Sandeesh.
Playing outdoors has been an important stress buster for children. But with physical distancing restrictions required to prevent the pandemic spread, children do not have the option to go out and engage in physical activities.
“All these factors build up tension in children, just like a balloon that’s been blown up and could burst at any moment. At any time, the tension can result in impulsive acts such as suicide,” Dr Sandeesh added.
He said that even financial constraints experienced by some families during this time (due to job losses, salary cuts, etc), can affect children. “A huge number of parents used to provide nearly everything the children asked for. But now since there is economic instability, many parents are compelled to say ‘no’ to children. This can affect them adversely if it is not properly handled.”
While Chiri and the counseling initiative by cadets are being planned, another programme was launched by the Department of Women and Child Development along with the Health Department.
“It was launched just before the results of the Class 10 exams had come out, to offer counseling to children who were tense about it. There are 1,200 counsellors in the state included in the fight against COVID-19. Out of these, 900 are school counselors and the rest are employed by the Health Department. Recently, they have been given training specifically to address children’s issues and an orientation workshop. Anganwadi, ASHA and other health workers have also been instructed to identify children’s issues and report it to the Mental Health Authority so that tele-counseling facilities could be arranged. We have reached out to more than 60,000 children in two weeks,” said TV Anupama, director, Department of Women and Child Development.
Since February, the Health Department has been offering psychosocial support to people in quarantine through a project called ‘Ottakkalla Oppam Undu’ (Not alone, we are with you). The programme has been extended to address children’s issues since the time a child died by suicide in Malappuram, reportedly for not having access to online class.
Dr Kiran PS, state nodal officer, mental health programme, said, “It happens in multiple levels. School counsellors (of government schools) call all the children at the respective school and identify those who have an issue to provide support. These counselors were already involved in the psychosocial support programme, so they are trained to identify such mental health issues. In the second level, health workers are given a checklist to identify emotional issues among children and report, and as a third step, we urge them to call on DISHA helpline if they face any issue.”
He said that it could be mostly stress issues that the children face, but it could also be problems coming out of substance abuse. However, out of the 64,000 calls they have made, cases needing medical support were limited to less than 20.
Chief Minister Pinarayi in his press meet had said that one cannot handle children and adolescents as one handles an adult. “A jovial and loving relationship should be built along with creating a happy atmosphere at home,” he said.
Dr Sandeesh said that parents can do their bit too. “Though parents are spending more time with children, it should be quality time. Proper communication is another important factor. Instead of putting them down, appreciate them for the small, good deeds.”
If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families.
State health department's suicide helpline: 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)
Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930
Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584
Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222
Maithri: 0484 2540530
Chaithram: 0484 2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers
State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104
Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200
SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 am and 7 pm)
Aasara offers support to individuals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.
24x7 Helpline: 9820466726
Click here for working helplines across India.