July 03, 2021
WOU hosted the Penang International Forum on Mental Health at its main campus from 6th to 7th October 2020to discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on the mental health of children and adolescents.
The event was organised by the Penang Education Council, the Ministry of Education and WOUâs School of Education, Humanities & Social Sciences (SEHS) in partnership with the Penang Mental Health Association, Creativity at Heart, and the Centre for Creative Arts Therapy Penang.
In his speech, Penang Deputy Chief Minister II Prof Dr P Ramasamy said the forum, held in conjunction with the World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2020, aimed to create awareness and highlight the preventive measures and interventions to deal with the mental health problems in schools. Also present at the opening were WOU Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic & Educational Technology) Prof Zoraini Wati Abas, SEHS Dean Assoc Prof Dr Thomas Chow Voon Foo, and event organising chairperson Fatimah Hassan.
In kicking-off the webinar to discuss the mental health impact on children, psychiatrist Dr Kam Wong from Australia, spoke on âBack to School: Finding Certainty, Normalcy and Maintaining Well-Being in the New Normal of Covid-19â. He said that social isolation, unemployment/retrenchment of parents, family disharmony, inability to adapt to online schooling, and the new normal can affect the childâs mental health.
He called on parents, teachers and school counsellors to help the young to navigate through life and learning to find a sense of certainty and normalcy, and to maintain a sense of well-being. âTry to celebrate milestones like birthdays as much as possible. It would help if another person, like a counsellor, regularly checks in with them. Encourage them to learn to improve their confidence and competence, to connect via virtual platforms to build relationships, to do something for others so that they are outward focused and to watch television and exercise.â
He urged schools to be alert to mental health issues and learn to read behind the childâs bad behaviour. âDestigmatising of mental health issues should be part of the school curriculum. The child must be taught basic stress management and distress tolerance skills like relaxation, mindfulness and how to face anxiety and depression.â
Datoâ Dr Lai Fong Hwa, Assoc Prof of Psychiatry at Penang Medical College, shared on âChildren with Special Needs & the Covid-19 Challenge â Disrupted Routines, Halted Therapies, Returning to Schoolâ. He said children with special education needs include those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Intellectual Developmental Disorders and Learning Disorders.
He said the changes to the childâs daily routine, the reduced personal space and alone time, and the increased noise levels at home can make them more anxious, irritable, angry and stressed. He suggested establishing a routine to promote predictability, security and safety for the child.
Datin Indranee Liew from Penang Mental Health Association, in her presentation on âLocal Experience of Pandemic: Understanding Behaviour & Techniques to Regulate Emotion in Childrenâ, said prolonged intense stress, without the protection of supportive adults, will increase the risk of physical and mental illness.
âToo much stress can lead to anger, exhaustion, panic, anxiety, and breakdown.â She said the child may struggle to pay attention in school, cry, feel agitated, find difficulty sleeping, become defiant, and avoid activities/events.
She suggested teaching them self-regulation skills to manage their emotions and behaviour, and to adapt to a new environment. These include encouraging them to take deep breaths or count to 10 if upset, reinforcing good responses, explaining rules to follow, encouraging them to talk through problems with someone they trust, showing them alternative behaviours which are socially acceptable, and delaying gratification.
About 140 counsellors from the primary schools in Penang joined the webinar and the on-site workshops held on the first day.