Vulnerable and in the discomfort zone

Preeti Mehra | Updated on June 27, 2021

In limbo: Disrupted hopes and dreams of an entire generation held hostage to a virus   -  PTI

The pandemic toll on the mental health of children, including instances of PTSD, has received too little attention

“I love my father, but why does he behave like this?” asks a 13-year-old from a slum in Delhi who was sexually abused during the first lockdown. She and her mother were also beaten up often. The mother, a daily wager, was compelled to take the traumatised child with her to her hazardous workplace, rather than risk leaving her at home with the violent abuser.

This is just one story in a report from Protsahan India Foundation on Covid-19. And the accounts of children experiencing distress at home get more horrific during the virulent second wave of the pandemic. Apart from sexual abuse, they have witnessed domestic violence; faced hunger due to their parents becoming jobless; and been forced to work or get married despite being underage.

Their stories also reveal bouts of anxiety, feelings of claustrophobia from being confined in a one-room hutment, restlessness, missing the routine of school and mid-day meals, and loneliness without access to friends. And, above all, an intense insecurity and anxiety about the future. All having a deep impact on mental wellbeing.

Calls for help

Since the lockdown began, Childline India (a helpline supported by the Ministry of Women and Child Development) witnessed a 50 per cent increase in calls. Most callers, apart from seeking information about the pandemic, asked for protection against abuse, violence, abandonment, exploitation, child labour and marriage. That is not all. According to the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), between April and September 2020, about 1,127 children were rescued across India from suspected trafficking and 86 alleged traffickers were arrested. During the second wave of the pandemic, over just two days, BBA reportedly received more than 200 SOS calls from across India about children losing their entire immediate family to the virus.

The School of Human Ecology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, along with Child Rights and You (CRY) undertook a research project, ‘Understanding Children’s Experiences During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Stressors, Resilience, Support and Adaptation’.

For the study, 821 children (470 girls and 351 boys) aged 9-17 were chosen from 13 cities including Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Darjeeling, Delhi, and Hyderabad. Half of the parents had little or no formal education, and many were labourers. Three-fourths of the households earned ₹6,362 or less every month.

Relief and resilience

When asked what they liked most about the lockdown, 24.4 per cent of the participants said they enjoyed the time spent with their families. Some said they enjoyed engaging in hobbies (10.7 per cent) and watching TV (6.8 per cent). However, 68.6 per cent revealed that the pandemic had disrupted their plans and dreams for the year.

Financial problems at home were reported to be the greatest stress factor for 26 per cent participants. Uncertainty about when Covid would end was a worry for 24 per cent and fears about contracting Covid affected 23.5 per cent. Hearing negative Covid-related news upset 22.3 per cent. Children belonging to the lower income groups experienced greater stress related to financial and other concerns.

The researchers found that the participants’ mean score on the CRIES-8 scale (which measures trauma among children) was 12.35. One-third of the participants scored 17 or more — the cut-off indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The 12-14 age group received the highest CRIES-8 mean score of 13.17.

When it came to resilience, there were some silver linings. Some children felt their hobbies helped them cope, while others credited their families, especially mothers (55.6 per cent), fathers (45.9 per cent), and siblings (13.2 per cent).

PTSD among children in the country is hardly ever probed. This report, as Shalini Bharat, Vice-Chancellor and Director at TISS, says, can help those working with children to plan targeted interventions to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic. The significance of the findings is all the more heightened given that a survey last year by the Indian Psychiatric Society revealed that mental illnesses have risen by 20 per cent in the country.

Published on June 27, 2021

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