Pandemic or war, children growing up alone need support for mental well-being
The trauma of losing a parent or a caregiver is catastrophic for a child
Across the world a staggering 10.5 million children have lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19, and 7.5 million have been orphaned. The resilience of nations and communities has been tested to the maximum. In India, a report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) identified 147,773 children who lost one parent due to COVID-19. Another 10,600 children lost both their parents at the peak of the pandemic between 1 April 2020 and 15 March 2022.
The trauma of losing a parent or a caregiver is catastrophic for a child. Without the safety of a family or trusted adults, children are at risk of neglect, disruption to their education and even abuse and trafficking. In some instances, the lack of stable parental care can lead to child marriages and teenage pregnancies. Even when children do not face such risks directly, a lot is brewing under the surface. Fear, anxiety, and depression are prevailing emotions, as are grief and even survivor’s guilt.
We all — including civil society organisations, governments, corporations and other partners — have a duty of care to support children who have lost parental care or are at risk of losing it, and a critical part of that support is about tending to the mental well-being of children and their caregivers.
What can we do together to support children?
- Expand the network of mental health services for caregivers: When parents and caregivers do not have the resources they need to manage their own stress it can detract from their ability to care for their children. Investing in community-based mental health services for adults will help them to be the stable, supportive presence that children need.
- Reduce stigma around seeking mental health services: In a UNICEF survey, only 41 per cent of young people in India said that it is ‘good’ to seek support for mental health problems, compared to an average of 83 per cent for several other countries. Seeking mental health support must be normalised. The fact that there are now more conversations around mental health is a silver lining to the pandemic. In addition, the support for mental well-being is increasingly at the centre of emergency response services being provided by leading agencies such as UNICEF and SOS Children’s Villages. For example, we are seeing the growing importance of mental health and psychosocial care in response to humanitarian crises such as the war in Ukraine.
- Ensure care is trauma-informed: Research shows that 75 per cent of children in alternative care have experienced trauma prior to their alternative care placement. This trauma hinders their development and impacts their response to day-to-day events or conflicts. Failing to deal with trauma appropriately increases safeguarding risks. So for children in alternative care, their caregivers need specialized training to fully support children and young people with experience of trauma.
- Invest more in supporting families to stay together: Unemployment, declining income, job insecurities, decreasing options for livelihood, families slipping into debt and poverty can be multiple factors that can put pressure on an already fragile family unit. Internal displacement and migration can also pull families apart, exacerbating the strain on mental health. We must increase investments in strengthening and boosting support for these families at the root cause of the stress, including creating employment opportunities, increasing access to healthcare and ensuring food security.
- Safeguard the most disadvantaged groups: Children with disabilities who have lost parental care or are at risk of losing it are more likely to be discriminated against and as a result experience mental health issues. These children need tailored policies and measures to remove barriers for their development. Another sub group that needs special measures is children who identify as LGBTQIA. They should also be provided a safe and enabling environment to ensure their mental health.
The challenge of ensuring mental health for children is complex and profound. Global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic difficulties, and military conflicts have placed all children and families under pressure, and the stress is multiplied many times for children who have lost or are at risk of losing parental care. The global community must step up to support them.
The author is the first female CEO of SOS Children’s Villages International, a leading organisation working globally to ensure children grow up with the bonds they need to become their strongest selves. Views are personal.
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