Dubai: Child mental health crisis has worsened after the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s largest mental health congress for children and adolescents heard on its inaugural day in Dubai on Tuesday.
The 25th edition of the World Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (IACAPAP 2022), hosted by Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital in Dubai, was inaugurated by Hessa Bint Essa Buhumaid, Minister of Community Development. The conference is happening for the first time in the Arab world.
Mental well-being a high priority
In her opening remarks, Buhumaid, highlighted that mental health and well-being is a high priority for the UAE government and the goals of the Congress are aligned with the National Program for Happiness and Well-being under the Ministry of Community Development
“Well-being has been and will remain a government priority in the UAE, where the National Wellbeing Strategy 2031 stresses the promotion of mental health as one of the key goals.”
Buhumaid noted that response to triggers, factors and overwhelming situations is the outcome of the interaction between psychological, social, physiological, and genetic factors in the area of child and adolescent mental health, including early signs, risk factors, early intervention, continuous support, and inclusiveness.
“The Mental Health Policy, launched by the Ministry of Health Prevention, is not limited to adults. It targets all segments of the community including children. The policy aims at developing and strengthening mental health services as well as promoting the prevention of mental disorders of all people of all ages,” she added.
The opening ceremony, compèred by a young girl, featured soulful performances by the UAE Youth Orchestra and the Dubai Centre for Special Needs.
Advocating youth mental health
In his opening welcome speech, Daniel Fung, CEO of IACAPAP, said the importance of advocating for youth mental health needed emphasis with studies indicating that one in four children develop mental health disorders.
He called on the global experts attending the four-day Congress to advocate for children and the resources needed to do preventive work in reducing adverse childhood experiences that affect mental health. “In this world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, we must find the strength to do research that is different, look for resources and fight for the rights of children so that they can be responsible for their future and ours,” he added.
Delivering the keynote speech, Prof. Helen Egger, co-founder and chief medical and scientific officer, Little Otter, a virtual early childhood mental health company in the US, said one in eight children across the world live with an “impairing” mental health disorder, which translated to over 26 million children who are impacted.
She said she drew the statistics from a “recent, very large meta-analysis of studies of children across the globe.”
“We certainly had a child mental health crisis before COVID. And now it’s much worse. There’s some estimates that there has been a 25 per cent increase in depression and anxiety among children during COVID. I personally think that we’re only seeing the beginning of the impact of these years on kids and families.”
Prof Egger pointed out that the American Academy of Paediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
Things have not been very different in the UAE either. Local experts at the Congress observed that mental health issues among children saw a spike during the pandemic here also.
The UAE’s only inpatient facility for child mental health patients has seen a steady increase in the number of youngsters seeking mental health services since the establishment of the Mental Health Inpatient Ward under the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Centre of Excellence at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital in January 2019.
“There was a clear rise [in the number of patients] since COVID-19,” said Dr Omer Ahmad Minhas, who presented a paper on setting up and running the inpatient facility. Comparing the bed occupancy rates before COVID, he said more and more young people needed admissions in the hospital during and post the pandemic.
According to him, it is after the COVID restrictions were lifted that more patients have sought the service. The demand has been for all the major mental health disorders, with anxiety and mood disorders becoming more predominant.
“That’s what we’ve noticed for the last three years,” he said, adding that eating disorders, anxiety and depression have been on the rise just like the global trend.
The Mental Health Inpatient ward at Al Jalila Children’s provides highly specialised multidisciplinary assessment, intensive support, treatment and management to children and adolescents and their families who present with severe mental health difficulties that cannot be managed through other programmes in the schools or in the community. The unit caters for those up to the age of 18 years old, and consists of 10 beds, said Dr Meshal Sultan, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Al Jalila Children’s.
“We handle a variety of cases, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. We have a specialised team for the major conditions. We have an arts programme dedicated for autism, another programme dedicated to post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical psychology, among other specialities.”
The fact that most mental health disorders start before age 18. highlights the importance of investing in child and adolescent mental health care, added Dr Sultan, who is also the local organising committee chair of the Congress.
Surge in mental disorders
Echoing this, Dr. Ammar Albania, head of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Centre of Excellence, who is also the chairman of the IACAPAP World Congress Organising Committee, pointed out that “mental health, especially children’s mental health, is an extremely important topic given that the vast majority of mental disorders start within childhood or youth. And currently, especially, post COVID, we’re experiencing a surge in mental health conditions or mental disorders. And this is happening across the world. In order to meet the demand and provide the best care for these children and their families, we have to think innovatively and improve the systems of care in our countries. Therefore, we are very privileged to host the 25th edition of the World Child Mental Health Congress IACAPAP 2022 which started in 1937, and is happening for the first time in an Arab city since its launch.”
In line with the Congress’ theme “shaping the future,” he said experts from all over the world are discussing innovations, important ideas and scientific discoveries in order to improve children’s mental health here and globally. With under-resourced services and increased demand, there is a considerable gap and, therefore, there is a need for innovative solutions to bridge this gap, he added.