MENTAL HEALTH - 10 October 2023

Breaking the silence: Arsha's journey to mental well-being

"While some may believe that people can't recall events from their early years, that's not entirely true. I still carry the memories of that painful time with me," says 13-year-old Arsha*. 

Children depend on their families for a sense of safety and security. When, like Arsha, they have experienced trauma and witnessed violence in early childhood, they face an increased risk of long-term mental health conditions that can reduce their chances of living a happy and fulfilling life.

Across the world, we are still learning about mental health, and in many societies, there is a stigma around it. People are expected to brave it out instead of delving into their problems.

The 2021 UNICEF study shows that around 14% of adolescents and 19% of children in Bangladesh experienced emotional distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Bangladesh National Mental Health Survey (2018-2019), less than 2% of adolescents receive mental health services. The stigma surrounding mental health remains a pervasive issue. It often manifests as a reluctance to discuss mental health openly and seek help, which leads to misinformation and fear.

Arsha came to SOS Children’s Villages in Bangladesh at the age of two after her mother was murdered and her dad incarcerated. She had to learn to live without both her parents.

“When she was 7, I noticed the first signs of her troubles. She would toss and turn the whole night, unable to sleep. The next day, she would be unable to go to school. She could not socialize with her siblings or classmates and would pick up fights. One time she bit a classmate and I had to rush to school to pick her up,” shares a caregiver who was with Arsha in her struggles.

As an adolescent, Arsha was anxious and restless. Her recurring nightmares would make her wake up at night shouting. Her teachers and caregivers started noticing destructive behavior. Arsha struggled with her regular activities, like studies or chores. Arsha’s caregivers, trained in mental health support, understood that her behavior was a symptom of mental distress.

The village counselor, trained in mental health and psychological support services, referred Arsha to a psychiatrist. She began therapy. The village counselor would not just counsel Arhsa, but also help her family understand what they needed to do to support her recovery. Therapy sessions became Arsha’s safe space to discuss her fears and worries. She started slowly chipping away at her childhood trauma and replacing it with trust, in people and in the world. In her sessions, Arsha also learned about the mind-body connection, and how her issues, even though they were mental, were stored in her body, affecting her physical well-being as well.

Arsha has been attending regular counseling sessions for almost three years. She used to need frequent sessions at first, but now, supported by her caregivers, counselor and friends, she has more agency in her healing and her appointments have become less frequent. Her experience taught everyone around her that seeking help and talking about mental health were signs of courage, not weakness. By talking openly about her mental health challenges, Arsha deepened her connections with her caregivers and siblings. They became a support network that understood her struggles.

“My sister has suffered a lot and is now doing better. We are all with her in her difficulties. She has become an inspiration in how to deal with mental health. At one point, I was going through something that seemed so troubling it was bringing me down. That’s when I felt I must talk to someone just like my sister did. It is so human to feel overwhelmed and ask for help.” shared Saba, Arsha’s sibling.

Arsha’s therapist Abu Sayed says: “Arsha has understood that mental well-being is an ongoing journey that requires self-compassion and resilience. She has also realized that sharing her experiences of seeking support could help others who might be facing similar struggles.”

SOS Children’s Villages in Bangladesh recognizes the growing mental health challenges among children and young people and has been actively involved in MHPSS programs to address the psychological and emotional needs of children and families affected by various challenges. With a multi-faceted approach, SOS Children’s Villages in Bangladesh has offered counseling to 195 people and 246 groups since 2021. Additionally, there have been 129 workshops on stress management and building healthy relationships.

“With the focus on creating safe spaces, providing counseling services, and promoting emotional well-being, the programs aim to enhance the resilience and coping skills of children, caregivers, and communities, especially those who have faced trauma, displacement, or other adverse circumstances,” says Tanusri Bose Soma, mental health coordinator at the SOS Children’s Village in Khulna.

The ultimate goal is to reduce stigma so that everyone can access mental health care and live a healthy and fulfilling life.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of the child

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