Child Psychiatry Center: A ray of hope for children in need of care

Set up with the support of UNICEF, the Child Psychiatry Center (CPC) at SMHS hospital is proving to be a ray of hope for children with mental health issues.

The multi-disciplinary clinic, having a dedicated team of 15 experts, has been witnessing a huge patient inflow. “People have come to know about this mental health facility and are bringing their children with a hope. Even we get referrals from doctors as well,” said Mohammad Shaheen, occupational therapist at the centre.

At the clinic, established by department of psychiatry, Government Medical Colleges (GMC) Srinagar, the aim of the team is to help the child become independent, especially if they suffer from conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, autism or other ailments where physical and cognitive components are affected.

“We start with assessment of components such as cognitive abilities, sensory and motor skills,” commented Shabnum Shafi, special educator at the CPC. The assessment helps the team to find out problem area and then devise an intervention plan. The treatment approach could either be using medicines or therapy or counseling or a combination of the three.

The multi-disciplinary clinic has devised a multi-layered approach to childhood mental health, addressing the child, as well as the setting in which the child is based. “Counseling and training of parents and caregivers is an important component of our work,” said Jyotika Rana, clinical psychologist at the Center. However, the treatment regimen involves a number of visits to the clinic, regimented training and therapy sessions and regular follow ups. “It is like moulding and training a child to use a hidden ability,” explained Muzamil Wagay, coordinator at the CPC.

The center has been able to help many children with late development catch up and integrate them into the mainstream schooling. Although, not many schools in Kashmir are receptive to children with mental or physical impairments, the Center continues to strive to make schooling possible for such children. “If we are able to help recognise and address problems such as speech impairment or learning disorders, it’s a guarantee of some degree of normalcy in his child’s development,” said Adil Fayaz, another coordinator at Center, which became operational earlier this year.

Pediatric psychiatrist at the Center, Dr Syed Karar Hussain believes that awareness among people about possible emotional and behavioral disorders in children and seeking proper advice and care at right time would go a long way in building a mentally healthier generation.

For this, he feels school mental health programs for promotion or preventive aspects and screening, coupled with referral was an imperative need. “An inter-agency collaboration and coordination for effective implementation of child and adolescent mental health is what we are trying to focus on,” he said.

The lack of opportunities for children with developmental delays is putting their chances in jeopardy, the team fears. To address this issue, a legal expert Mujtaba Hussain, who is also part of the team, has started with educating the parents about rights of children with disabilities. “As per the amended Persons with Disabilities Act, no school can deny admission to a child with any kind of disability,” he said, adding parents need to be aware of the rights of their children. “Knowledge is the first step,” he added.

The Center has a proposal in pipeline for capacity development of schools and training of teachers. “We understand that if schools do not have skilled staff for children with special needs, it serves no purpose to have children enrolled in these schools,” said Aksa Altaf, one of the coordinators at the Centre. In order to reach out to schools and to build linkages between community and the CPC, an adolescent outreach program is in the offing for four districts of Kashmir.

The districts have been chosen on the basis of the intensity of the psychological impact on adolescents due to the recent years of violence in Kashmir. “Interaction with this group, and having outreach programs in schools will definitely be a starting point for childhood mental health,” said Shaheen. The team plans to help parents identify the early signs of mental health disorders.

“The ambit mental health issues affecting children is quite vast so parents need to be vigilant,” Shafi said. As an example, he said, parents can look out for “obvious signs” such as delay in motor abilities, such as difficulty in sitting, absence of social smile, lack of meaningful play, aloofness, delayed responses etc.

In addition, parents can seek advice and help on speech milestones delays, comprehension lags, hyperactivity, cognition issues, temper issues and behavior problems. Warning parents against using grades as a measurement of mental ability, she said, “Not grades, but general functionality is a better way of looking at child’s abilities.”