Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Knock-on effect

One and Other-Mental HealthImage by Victius via Flickr

In collaboration with Health Promotion Board, Singapore

Unhappy relationships in the family can cause children stress

Eveline Gan

Her father had recently lost his job. To lessen his financial worries, Wendy (not her real name) thought of killing herself. She felt that she was a burden to her parents and they would be better off if she were dead.

Prone to depression, 16-year-old Wendy is one of the many disturbing cases Dr Daniel Fung, senior consultant and chief of the child and adolescent psychiatry department in the Institute of Mental Health, has seen at his clinic.

Although the economic slump does not affect children and teenagers directly, it can take its toll, said psychiatrists Today spoke to.

"They may not be affected by the recession, but their parents may be. And this can indirectly affect them," said Dr Fung, one of the co-authors of Feeling Blue, a self-help guide on handling teenage depression.

Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre who has both adult and teenage patients, noted that he had seen a 10- to 20-per-cent increase in the number of couples with conflicts in past months. Most of their troubles revolve around job and financial stress.

"Conflict between family members or parents can have a knock-on effect on kids," said Dr Wang.

He added that adults who are stressed or depressed cannot focus on their roles as parents, which is crucial for their child's wellbeing.

"They may have problems doing simple things such as coaching their kids on their homework, to more complex tasks such as dispensing sound advice," said Dr Wang.

Up to 20 per cent of local school-going children, including those who don't seek professional help, may experience some form of depression, Dr Fung estimated.
"Kids and teenagers often feel trapped and see no way out of their situation. Without a mature perspective on things, they may become irrational about their fears," said Dr Wang.

A recent local study of over 600 children, aged six to 12, found that 22 per cent had harboured thoughts of killing themselves or indicated that they wanted to kill themselves. Therefore, it is important that parents and friends know the warning signs (see box), said Dr Fung.

Medication, problem-solving techniques and talking therapies (counselling and talking it through) are typically used to treat depression. But with children and teenagers, parental or family support is "critical", both doctors said.

"Some kids may not want to admit it, but what their parents think of them is very important to them," said Dr Fung.

Feeling Blue: A Guide to Handling Teenage Depression is available at $18.50 (before GST) at all good bookstores.

Watch the warning signs

Children and teenagers who are depressed may have symptoms similar to those of adults. These include having suicidal thoughts, low mood that lasts more than two weeks, and a lack of interest in their usual activities and hobbies, said Dr Daniel Fung, senior consultant and chief of the child and adolescent psychiatry department in the Institute of Mental Health.

On the other end of the spectrum, depressed children and teenagers are also more prone to "engaging in oppositional acts", which parents may sometimes perceive as disobedience or rebelliousness, added Dr Adrian Wang, consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

"It's important for parents to sit down and talk to their child. Don't assume that he's just being a bad boy, especially if what he's doing is out of character," said Dr Wang.

From TODAY, Health – Tuesday, 15-Sep-2009