October 10 2023

Breaking the silence-Arsha’s journey to mental wellness

"My mother passed away before my eyes. There was violence in my house when I was growing up. I was two years old then. 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 moment with me."- Arsha*

Children depend on their families and parents for a sense of safety and security. When children grow up in unstable families such as Arsha’s where they have experienced trauma and seen violence they come under an increased risk of having long-term mental trauma that can reduce their chances of living a happy and fulfilled life. While across the world we are just learning about mental health, in many societies and cultures mental health is seen as a stigma, and people are expected to brave it out instead of delving into their problems.

The UNICEF (2021) study says around 14% of adolescents and 19% of children in Bangladesh experienced emotional distress during the COVID-19 pandemic globally. According to the National Mental Health Survey (2018-2019) of Bangladesh, below 2% of adolescents are coming to 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, leading to misinformation and fear.

Arsha came to SOS Children’s Village in Bangladesh at age two after her mother was murdered. Arsha had to learn to live without both her parents. Growing up in the village Arsha’s development indicators were normal. However, as Arsha got older her trauma resurfaced and caused disruption.

“When she was 7 years old, I noticed the first signs of her troubles. She would toss and turn the whole night and be unable to sleep. The next day she would be unable to go to school or attend school as she would be irritable and groggy. She could not behave normally at such times 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.” Shared Arsha’s caregiver who was with her through her struggles.

As an adolescent Arsha started lagging in regular activities. She started behaving anxious and was always restless. Her recurrent nightmares would make her break into a sweat and wake up shouting at night. Her teachers and caregivers started noticing frequent temper tantrums and destructive behavior. Arsha also could not continue her regular activities like her studies or domestic responsibilities. Fortunately for Arsha, she was surrounded by caregivers who were trained in mental health support and understood that her behavior was a symptom of mental distress.

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

Arsha has been attending regular counseling sessions and under medication since the end of 2020. She used to need frequent sessions at the early stage but now with the support of her SOS family, counselor, and friends, Arsha has more agency in dealing with 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 and gave her the appropriate space.

“My sister has suffered a lot and is now doing better. We are all with her in her difficulties. She has become an inspiration on how to deal with mental health. At one point I was going through something that seemed so troubling that 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.

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

SOS Children’s Villages Bangladesh recognises the growing challenges of mental health 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 Bangladesh has so far offered counseling to 195 individuals and 246 groups since 2021. Additionally, there have been 129 workshops and training sessions to equip children, caregivers and community people through FS to better manage stress and build healthier relationships.

“With the focus on creating safe spaces, providing counseling services, and promoting emotional well-being, the programs aims to enhance the resilience and coping skills of children, caregivers, and community, especially those who have faced trauma, displacement, or other adverse circumstances.” shares Tanusri Bose Soma, Mental Health Coordinator, at SOS Children’s Village Khulna.

Eventually, the goal is to reduce the stigma so everyone can access Mental health care and live a healthy and fulfilled life.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of the child.