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Dr Varma Deyalsingh.

Anna-Lisa Paul

Mental health experts in T&T say they are concerned about the increase in suicidal tendencies among young children locally due to adverse effects created by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of T&T Dr Varma Deyalsingh yesterday claimed suicide was now the second highest cause of death in children aged 15 to 29.

His remarks came after a medical professional attached to a public clinic in Port-of-Spain expressed alarm after an increase in “suicide intention” had been observed in many young people attending the facility, which caters to persons on the lower end of the economic scale.

The doctor said the pattern observed in youths over the past several months included aggressive behaviour and attitude changes; increased anxiety; schooling/educational difficulties; families where relatives remained incarcerated and those whose relatives at home were substance abusers.

Another medical official who requested anonymity reported, “In my practice, I am seeing a lot of persons with sleep disturbances and eating disorders…these are all signs of depression manifesting itself physically.”

He said in his younger clients, he had found children behaving peevish or becoming extremely irritated quickly, refusing to calm down, displaying temper tantrums and some even stopped eating and sleeping.

The two experts said although the lockdown had impacted adults and children in different ways, parents had an overarching responsibility to protect their children from the additional stresses it may have brought and not transmit that to the child.

Confirming youth suicide was also now a global trend, Deyalsingh said depression is normally the first indicator something is wrong with an individual. Conflict, turmoil, agitation, anxiety and/or abuse in all the forms, including physical, sexual and emotional and domestic violence are all triggers.

Asked what could be causing suicidal thoughts in children now, Deyalsingh said, “Some of them would have their problems and the parents do not even know what is bothering them. It is not like long ago where children were made to go to church where they would have been exposed to spirituality and all it entails…that support from extended relatives…that is lacking now in many instances.”

Deyalsingh urged parents to recognise changing behaviours and attitudes, as he warned, “A child who is usually quiet who is suddenly acting aggressive and loud…or a child who was loud before who is now quiet and withdrawn…that is what you have look for.”

Adding that exam pressures, relationship issues and bullying were also factors that lead to depression, Deyalsingh said, “We are seeing younger and younger children killing themselves now, and we also have to be careful as there can be copycats who will see what is happening and figure this is their way out. There are children who are impulsive and vex with their parents for one reason or another and they can just run out in front of a car.”

Noting schools had been closed since the first lockdown in March, Deyalsingh said, “Even though we were apprehensive before COVID-19, we are much more concerned now because of the stress associated with this manifesting in both adults and children who have had to adjust to being at home.

“It is more difficult now and coupled with the economic strain of those who have lost their jobs or suffered a loss in salary…the parents themselves are displaying anxiety and depression.”

He said this was a double-edged sword.

“You are now asking someone who is already undergoing emotional distress to look out for emotional stress in their children and it is a catch-22 situation.”

Deyalsingh said when schools are functional – teachers, social workers and guidance officers are usually the first to pick up on such issues, as they recognise depression and abuse among children. But with home-schooling in effect until December, he said educational administrators need to find a way to reach their students to determine their emotional, mental and physical well-being. He suggested a questionnaire or an online interview by a guidance officer and following from the child’s response, they could alert authorities on if follow-up action was necessary.

“We are getting more problems in the home with the lockdown and there is more domestic and child abuse,” Deyalsingh said, adding these were unusual times requiring unique action.

Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) president Antonia Tekah-De Freitas said discussions relating to this worrying trend are needed with the Ministry of Education to ensure immediate action can be taken to assist persons, especially those at the primary level.

She said certain situations existed before COVID-19 but admitted they had not received reports of suicidal cases involving students.

“I guess now it is more prevalent and more noticeable,” Tekah-De Freitas said.

Tekah-De Freitas said while home might not have been the best or safest place for some children prior to COVID-19, the virus had forced the authorities to take actions to keep the population safe.

In her 2020/2021 Budget contribution in the Parliament on Monday, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Gender and Child Affairs Ayanna Webster-Roy said over 4,000 cases of child abuse had been reported to the Children’s Authority in 2019. She said a large percentage of those cases were also of a sexual nature.

Webster-Roy also expressed alarm over the number of calls made to the domestic violence hotline 800-SAVE, saying during the period January 2019 to August 2020, a total of 11,298 calls had been received.