How a Kerala helpline for children helped a 12-year-old get his gooseberry tree back

A few months ago, a 12-year-old boy called 9497900200, upset that someone had cut off a gooseberry tree that he had been taking care of for the past two years. “He was inconsolable,” says Inspector General of Police, Kochi Range, P Vijayan, who is the Nodal Officer of the helpline, called Chiri (meaning smile, in Malayalam), dedicated to helping children resolve the mental angst and emotional tumult they were feeling during the pandemic.

He directed the police station at Njarakkal, the closest to the boy’s home in Edavanakkad, in Ernakulam district, Kerala, to give him a sapling of a gooseberry plant. A CCTV was also installed on the premises to prevent future theft.

Another call that came in was from a boy in Thodupuzha in Kerala’s Idukki district. He called the helpline when he found that his pet goat had been stolen. “He too was in tears and wanted to know if we could help him. The local police station ensured he got a new goat as a pet,” says Vijayan.

“These may seem like small, even silly issues, but they could be huge for a child. The idea behind the initiative is to go beyond counselling and do whatever it takes to bring a smile to the child’s face in these tough times,” Vijayan adds.

An emotional helpline

Chiri was launched by the Kerala police in March 2020. By April 2021, they had received around 14,000 calls from children ages 11 to 15, out of which 5,000 were related to emotional distress. Chiri is still getting a number of calls from children across Kerala, who share their concerns that range from anxiety, loneliness, depression and gadget dependence to suicidal thoughts. They are heavily impacted by the financial stress experienced by parents and domestic squabbles.

The helpline receives about 50 to 60 calls every day, according to civil police officer Lakshmi V T, Thiruvananthapuram, who is part of the help desk.

With a panel of 120 psychologists and 32 psychiatrists and mentors — 51 elder mentors (teachers ) and 290 peer mentors (student police cadets), from across the State, the helpline diverts the calls that can be resolved through counselling to designated volunteers. Those that need psychiatric intervention are passed on to doctors, who speak to the children over the phone and may prescribe medication. Those that need intervention by the police are directed to the department.

Teen screen time disruptions

Thirteen-year-old Shreya (name changed), a Class VIII student, battled insomnia over many months. Imaginary notifications on her phone, which she kept close to her pillow, popped up whenever she drifted off to sleep. She tried turning off notifications before going to bed, but still could not sleep. Shreya began to worry as the pattern persisted. Constant restlessness set in, and she was unable to concentrate on her studies. Finally, she decided to seek help through ‘Chiri’.

Fourteen-year-old Rahul (name changed) had been dealing with his constant need to watch pornography over the last one year. Unable to focus on school work, he felt irritable, often staying awake the whole night. The Class IX student felt frustrated and “bad” about himself. He too turned to professional help via the helpline.

Addiction to pornography and gaming

Mental health professionals warn of a “tech epidemic”. The situation has worsened with the second wave of COVID-19. “With cases on the rise, isolation and quarantine have increased. This has increased children’s screen time. Addiction to gaming and pornography has been on a steady rise among boys and girls alike,” says Dr Ajeesh Ramachandran, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Government Mental Health Centre, Thrissur. The lack of a fixed daily routine, an erratic sleep cycle, and change in food habits, coupled with a sense of uncertainty are factors that have pushed school-goers into these.

Addictive behaviour is especially on the rise among teens because they have been deprived of their natural coping mechanism, which is the relationship with their peers, says psychologist Aarti C Rajaratnam, who specialises in childhood and adolescent mental health. She likes to classify teens as those in the 12 to 26 age group, because for them, the emotional part of the brain is easier to access than the thinking part.

What parents can do
  • Facilitate activities offline, like a walk in the park, an outdoor game such as badminton.
  • Establish a routine at home. This helps ensure regular eating and sleeping time.
  • Devote some time to reflection with your child, together discussing what went well on a particular day and what you could work on together.
  • Pay close attention to your child’s overall behaviour and talk about what they are consuming online. Explain to them the importance of regulating their time online.
  • Ask your child to take on one household responsibility (call it that, rather than a chore), and let them do it to the best of their abilty (without criticism).
  • Help your child learn a life skill like cooking. Build that into the routine, so you are engaged with them on it. The best conversations often happen when no one means for them to.

The helpline receives a number of calls from parents, who complain of their children’s gaming, adds Lakshmi from the ‘Chiri’ help desk. “They mainly report violent behaviour and anger tantrums by their adolescents when the phone is taken away from them,” she adds.

Parents struggle

Parents, both employed and stay-at-home, find it hard to keep a tab on what their child is doing online. “I don’t know what my son is up to. I find myself constantly worrying if he is attentive in class and is coping well. There is no way I can impose curbs on screen time as the entire day is spent on online classes,” says Praveena M, a health worker, in Thiruvananthapuram, who has a 14-year-old son.

“Teenagers are technology natives and their parents are technology migrants. So, parents clearly cannot tell them what to do online,” says Aarti. She adds that parents can be guided to help their children reduce anything that can be a potential trigger, such as news, which constantly gives out alarming information.

Sangeetha PK, from Kochi, worries about her 15-year-old daughter’s social capabilities. “Teenagers are not “talking” to each other. It is all via text — Instagram, WhatsApp and other media. They are dependent on the Internet for education, entertainment and interaction with peer group. I am apprehensive about its long term impact. How healthy is this?” she asks, helplessly.

Affectionate two-way chatter is important, says Aarti. “Parents can tell the child that they are available to talk to. Always ask the child if they want to just vent or if they are looking for a solution.” Building communication helps adolescents verbalise their problems.

Being cooped up at home has a physical downside too, which parents are equally concerned about. Twelve-year old Madhav’s (name changed) parents in Thiruvananthapuram started worrying when he began complaining of dizzinessoften. They got him tested and it turned out that he had a vitamin D deficiency. Being a child who enjoyed his playtime outdoors, he has been missing his time in the sun. “I ensure that I take him to the terrace every day now for a dose of sunlight,” says his mother Anu, a bank employee.

Exam stress

While many teens are online a great deal, there are some who are not, but still stressed. For the academically-inclined Ananya Josephine, a Class XII student in Palakkad, the uncertainty about the board exam (that was called off), caused much worry. “I felt so stressed, I have never had this feeling before,” she says. Ananya found more time to study in these times unlike in the pre-pandemic era, when she had to travel 16 kilometres to reach school. “Online learning has worked very well for me, but we students deserved better clarity in terms of exams.”

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 8:35:02 AM |

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