A helpline for depressed teenagers could save lives

Families and counsellors have called for the creation of a national helpline for depressed and distressed to call anonymously.

DUBAI// Parents and counsellors have called for the creation of a national helpline that depressed and distressed youngsters can call anonymously.

“Some students and young adults feel wary about visiting the school counsellor because of the fear of being ridiculed by a peer group, or being discussed in the staffroom or socially ostracised for seeking help,” said Rema Menon, the director of Counselling Point, a centre that offers career help and advice.

“There still is a stigma associated with seeing a mental-health professional. In some schools, the counsellor is seen as a disciplinarian, someone one gets referred to for wrongdoing or academic issues or behavioural misconduct.

“In the absence of mental-health professionals or pastoral care in schools, who can the young person go to? If there is a helpline, we can reach out to a troubled teenager, be more aware of the needs of the community, take care of recurrent problems, whatever they may be, and prevent a recurrence of the disturbing occurrence of suicides.”

Louis Smith, a 15-year-old pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, took his own life in December. Abhimanu Sadasivan, a Grade XI student at the Indian High School, Dubai, hung himself in Sharjah in March. His parents suspect academic pressure was to blame.

“A helpline could help if children could call and discuss their problems,” said Ambika Sadasivan, Abhimanyu’s mother. “It would not just help children but even adults.”

Ms Menon organised a forum last month for 65 school counsellors to discuss the issue, along with bullying and cyber addiction.

A counsellor at a school in Jumeirah said she regularly talked to students facing problems related to self-esteem, confidence, schoolwork, friendship and interpersonal conflict. Family issues, mood swings, addictive behaviour, bullying and other emotional issues were also leading concerns.

“When a student has certain needs they are generally referred to the school counsellor by teachers, parents, a school doctor, classmates and sometimes self-referred,” said the counsellor. “Children who are generally left to themselves without adequate supervision by the parents may be prone to befriend strangers on social-network sites. This can have a negative influence.”

Although students are referred to psychiatrists for specialised help if suffering from depression, she said a helpline would be useful.

“Private consultants can be very expensive and some of the families simply cannot afford it. In that case, a dedicated national helpline would be the answer to many in need.”

However, some are concerned about the quality of the advice such a service would offer.

“A national helpline may be good but I worry about the person on the other side,” said Fadwa Lkorchy, a developmental psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre, who counsels teenagers and young adults. “Will they make it better or worse? I will feel good if there is accountability.”

Ms Lkorchy said she saw at least seven youngsters a month with self-inflicted cuts or burns.

“Lots of kids are into cutting and burning,” she said. “It is a manifestation of pressure. They tend to seek a greater pain to alleviate their emotional pain. Self-mutilation could escalate to suicide.”

She said schools and parents shared the responsibility for spotting worrying behaviour.

“When they are very quiet, withdrawn, fighting a lot or are no longer the kids we know, the flag has to go up,” she said. “Some of the blame falls on schools, too. The counsellor-to-student ratio is very disproportionate.”

Ms Lkorchy, whose centre charges Dh600 an hour but does some pro bono cases, also called on health-insurance companies to provide coverage for mental health.


Published: May 8, 2014 04:00 AM


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