A spotlight shone on child and adolescent mental health in Myanmar

Child and adolescent mental health

Lucy Delahunty
Karuna Mission Social Solidarity (KMSS)
Karuna Mission Social Solidarity (KMSS)
15 October 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak this year has shone a spotlight on child and adolescent mental health in Myanmar. According to a poll by U-report  conducted at the beginning of October 2020, 75 per cent of young people in Myanmar who were surveyed said that their mental health has suffered as a result of the pandemic. The incidence of mental health and psychosocial disorders are expected to be particularly high amongst those who have been affected by conflict and natural disasters. 

A youth leader from Bagan, Pa Pa Win, spoke about the effects that COVID-19 is having on her peers. “With schools closed and social isolation, many children are spending more and more time online. This could increase online bullying.” 

Already data suggests bullying, in particular emotional bullying in schools, is more prevalent in Myanmar than regional and global averages and has increased over the last 10 years. Some adolescents who have been bullied say that they feel lonely, and they are so worried that they cannot sleep and have even considered suicide 

UNICEF recognizes mental health is important at every stage of life - from childhood and adolescence through to adulthood. Globally, up to 20 per cent of adolescents experience mental health conditions and among 15 to 19-year-olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death, according to the World Health Organization. 
June Kunugi, Representative, UNICEF Myanmar, said,

“We must act now to ensure that a generation of children, adolescents and families have access to prevention and response services that promote their long-term mental health.”

So far, government expenditure on mental health has been limited with most spending going toward hospitals.   “The gap in mental health and psychosocial services in Myanmar has been recognized for a while … we have a very limited number of practitioners who can provide quality psychotherapy and professional counselling,” said Dr. Ohnma Win Pe, Managing Director of Metanoia, a mental health and psychosocial support service and resource centre in Yangon.

Moreover, stigma and lack of awareness result in existing services being underutilised. Another recent U-Report poll involving Myanmar youth found over 72 per cent were unaware of where they could get help if they needed it.

“Seeking help for mental health is not common in Myanmar,” said Khin Thiri Win, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Myanmar. “Many young people don’t know how they can use the services and where they can get access”.

During Myanmar’s first nationwide lockdown in April, UNICEF and Metonoia launched a Mental Health and Psycho-Social Service Helpline for children and their parents. This helpline has since been extended to support frontline workers, including teachers. 

UNICEF is currently working with the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Social Welfare to help children cope with school closures and prepare them to return to the classroom through a Return to School campaign. The campaign aims to ensure that no child is isolated, teachers are equipped to recognise signs in children who may be suffering from mental health conditions, and services are available for children who need them. 

Plan International

In another initiative by UNICEF and Plan International, youth across Myanmar have been taking part in an online campaign which provides a safe online space where youth can support each other. The youth can share information about the pandemic, and tackle stigma around mental health and abuse. Since taking part in the campaign, more youth say they would seek help if they needed it. “These issues are big and complicated,” said July Soe, a youth leader from the northern state of Kachin who took part in the campaign. “They won’t go away overnight. That’s why we need to start helping each other, starting from our community.” 

UNICEF has been working with the Government and implementing partners to reduce the impact of lockdowns on children’s mental health. Child-friendly-space kits containing games and toys as well as COVID-19 comic books with educational messages about how to keep safe, are just some of the items that have been distributed to children and families. There has also been a series of virtual storytelling. The actions have been welcomed by families; one mother in Kayin State said that her children, “were bored at home without anything to play with. Now, they have books to read and they can learn important messages too.”