Sat | Jul 31, 2021

A mother’s mental health reality

Published:Wednesday | June 16, 2021 | 12:07 AMShanna Monteith/Gleaner Writer

Trudiann Livingston* is concerned about her son, Gregory. The 30-odd-year-old shared that her only child has been performing socially and academically at a substandard level, which she believes could have been avoided if these challenges were addressed earlier.

Livingston revealed that her son was two years old when he took his first steps and nearly four when he began communicating with clear-enough words.

The mother shared that her initial concerns of her son’s delayed development were hushed by her elders who informed her that “him just a bit slow, him soon catch up. Mi see worse than him and dem alright now”.

However, at eight years old, Gregory is still performing significantly below the average child his age and the concerns of his mother continue to grow.

“I was recommended to an institution which tested his abilities and the results came back that he may be on the autism spectrum. He has a short attention span and this was a struggle in school. With the introduction of online learning, it is even worse,” she said, adding that she cannot financially afford the level of special education that her child may require.

A study called Mind The Gap done by The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), which explores the inadequacy of mental health services for children in Jamaica, shared that the first five years of life are the most critical regarding brain development, including the development of emotional control and habitual ways of responding.

According to CAPRI, which shared that only eight per cent of Jamaican children’s mental health needs are being met, directing investments and efforts towards treatment and support in the early stages of brain development would redound to enhanced educational achievements, more positive adult outcomes, and, ultimately, boost national development.

IDENTIFYING RED FLAGS

Sharing ways in which intellectual abnormalities can be identified for quick action in children, psychiatrist Dr Ganesh Shetty said, “When a child fails to smile, coo, play peek-a-boo and can’t walk or talk even in short phrases by two, the red flag must go up. These children may show no interest in interacting, be unable to make friends or may make poor eye contact and inappropriate facial expressions or … keep repeating something of what is said. Intellectual disability (previously called mental retardation) which may coexist with autism, manifests as the child lagging behind in many spheres of development. These warning signs should be taken seriously.”

However, despite his age, Shetty noted that Gregory’s circumstance can still be addressed by first confirming and quantifying his diagnosis and then preparing those around him to better manage the results.

“Educating and supporting the parents, teacher and everyone that the child may come in contact with would be the first step to help them understand and do what is helpful. Based on the specific problems, the treatment plan may include accommodations in regular school setting or placement in special school setting, and training parents and teachers in behaviour management.”

The recommendation of the child mental health expert may perhaps be the resolution to additional challenges that the affected family has been facing as the child’s mother shared that he has also faced discrimination at school.

Livingston, who had enrolled her son in extra classes being offered in her community, told The Gleaner that, “One day he came home and I asked him what he learned and all he said was the teacher told him that he only comes to waste her time … that hurt me to the core.”

The family’s sad reality is but a small percentage of the challenges associated with mental health in the country.

CAPRI’s study highlighted the gap in basic health literacy, emphasising a need for additional curriculum content that would comprise tools for teachers to identify signs of mental illness in their students, knowledge on how mental disorders develop, and content towards destigmatisation.

Among recommendation to bridge the gap, the institute proposed expanding existing evidence-based programmes that address children’s mental health needs, improving child mental health data collection and management, and strengthening the governance system towards more structured, systematised inter-agency collaboration on children’s mental health.

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