Growing number of Czech children having post-pandemic mental health problems
The number of children and adolescents suffering from depression and those self-harming has increased steeply in the last few years, which many experts ascribe to the period of social isolation during the Covid pandemic. Alarmingly, the society is ill prepared for this trend and the number of child psychiatrists is woefully inadequate.
Hana was thirteen when she first cut her forearms with a knife. The self-harm continued for several years when she would pierce her skin, burn her hands with cigarette butts or bash them against a tree trunk until they bled. Looking back, she says it was a form of relief that she became addicted to.
"It's not just the physical pain, but also looking at the blood. It helps you to relax and calm down because when things become unbearable the physical pain surmounts the mental pain. When you get used to it you have to cut more and deeper."
Child experts are ringing alarm bells. Statistics show that the number of children and adolescents inflicting self-harm increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic and has been steadily rising in the last 18 months in what is a worrying nationwide trend.
Iva Dudová is head of the Children's Psychiatric Clinic at Prague’s Motol Hospital.
“Self-inflicted injuries by cutting or scratching are what we see most often. Children use whatever sharp object is at hand, a pen, projector, torn lid from a drink or even their nails. We have also lately seen children hitting themselves in the head or stomach."
Dr. Dudová says the social isolation during the pandemic left many youngsters feeling lonely and insecure and the problems not only affect more children, but they start at an earlier age. In the past, youngsters started self-harming at 15 or 16 now it is two years younger on average.
Although the problem needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, the shortage of child psychiatrists and psychotherapists means that often adolescents have to wait many months for an appointment, during which time the problem worsens. On average forty children a year commit suicide.
The lack of child psychiatrists –there are only around 80 of them in the entire country today – is reportedly due to the long years of study and low pay in what is a difficult profession. Efforts to attract more students to this particular field of study have repeatedly failed.
Non-profit organizations are trying to help. The NGO Dům tří přání (House of Three Wishes) has now opened a mental health centre for children and adolescents in Prague, its third in the country. Located in Korunovační Street in Holešovice the centre employs child psychotherapists trained to deal with depression, anxiety and self-harm. It offers an appointment within a few weeks and the services of a psychologist, psychotherapist and family councilor for a period from three to six months. The care is covered by health insurance and for those waiting months to see a psychiatrist it is a godsend.