Effects of pandemic on children’s mental health

A boy kills boredom caused by the MCO by cycling down the corridor of the block of flats where he resides. Photo: Bernama

GEORGE TOWN: It has been a year since the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world and, globally, reports have already emerged on its impact on children’s emotional and psychological well-being due to movement restrictions and online learning.

A Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) academic said he has been getting increasing negative feedback on the mental health of children due to the drastic changes in their daily routine.

Dr Syed Mohamad Syed Abdullah

Dr Syed Mohamad Syed Abdullah, a senior lecturer (Guidance and Counselling) at USM’s School of Educational Studies, said many children have been mentally and emotionally impacted since the enforcement of the movement control order (MCO) last March.

“From my observation, the MCO impacted children in two ways, namely their learning ability and interpersonal (social) development.

“Although no comprehensive study has been carried out on the MCO’s impact on children’s mental health, initial feedback about their attitude and behaviour showed that the movement restrictions had an impact on them,” he told Bernama in an interview here recently. 

As it is, nearly half a million children in Malaysia are facing mental health issues, according to the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019.

“And now with the pandemic, the situation is expected to get worse. We are getting increasing negative feedback on the mental health of children who are facing issues such as stress inflicted by online learning, as well as cabin fever,” he said.

Cabin fever refers to the feelings of restlessness, irritability and loneliness experienced by a person who is confined indoors for an extended period of time.

Level of understanding

Dr Syed Mohamad said the level of understanding of the limitations on movements and the need to adapt to the new normal would differ from child to child in accordance with their knowledge and maturity levels.

And, it is their level of understanding that would dictate their readiness to face the changes in their lives. The higher the level the higher the possibility of them understanding the danger of Covid-19 and why they cannot go out as often as they used to before the pandemic struck.

One of the aspects of movement restrictions that have impacted children greatly is online learning. Apart from the stress of having to adapt to a new learning environment, they also have to grapple with the drastic changes in the way they socialise with their classmates. 

“If this (online learning) persists for a long period of time, it can affect their interpersonal or social skills, which can have an impact on their mental health,” Dr Syed Mohamad pointed out.

On cabin fever, he said limited movements over a relatively long period of time can make children feel “trapped” and lead to changes in their emotional and behavioural patterns.

“When they find themselves unable to carry out their usual activities, they would feel fearful, depressed, sad, stressed and confused … they may also become overly sensitive or apathetic.

“Their behaviour would start to change and they may become rebellious, hyperactive, argumentative or destructive or throw tantrums and alienate themselves (from their families),” he added.

Two students participating in an online learning session. Photo: Bernama

Online learning

Commenting on the mental and emotional well-being of schoolchildren trying to cope with the challenges posed by digital learning, Dr Syed Mohamad said many of them are showing signs of rejecting this system of learning and displaying disinterest in their schoolwork.  

“As for those about to sit for examinations, their stress is apparent because they feel they could have understood their lessons better if taught face-to-face. This can affect their motivation level and learning skills. 

“It’s feared that if this situation prevails longer, then learning outcomes may not be fully achieved,” he said, adding that action must be taken immediately to streamline and improve the support system for online learning.

Dr Syed Mohamad also said that during these difficult times, parents and family members play an important role in managing their children’s mental and emotional well-being.

“Children usually feel ‘unsafe’ when they no longer have a daily routine (due to changes in the way they learn and socialise). And, such a situation can stimulate the brain to produce responses that make it difficult for them to learn or absorb information,” he said. 

In this respect, he added, parents can help by preparing a daily routine for their children that is packed with various new activities that are suited to the home environment. 

Creating a flexible timetable for learning as well as sports and recreational activities will not only kill boredom but give children the time and space to express their ideas and expend their energy.

As recommended by Dr Syed Mohamad, a suitable line-up of activities for children would be cooking, washing their bicycle, gardening, decorating their room, painting walls, drawing, colouring and aerobic exercises.

“These activities will not only keep them occupied but also keep them away from their gadgets and computers,” he said.

Urging parents to provide emotional support to their children and make them feel loved and wanted, he said children become more resilient when they are able to communicate well with their parents.  

“Parents need to communicate with their children in a friendly and open manner so that their children will feel comfortable enough to express their problems to them,” he added. – Bernama