Stress high among children in squalor
In a protected booth, carefully separated from her coworkers, Barbra Sillingi listens intently before speaking calmly into her telephone headset.
As a counsellor in the Nairobi offices of Childline Kenya, a national helpline for children that addresses mental health and violence against children, ‘listen to them’ is her mission and her passion.
“When a child comes to you and tells you something, we should not ignore them,” Sillingi says. “We should listen to their voice; listen to what they are saying because they also have feelings.
"They also need to be loved.” Since March 2020, when the first case of Covid-19 was officially confirmed, the number of weekly calls has more than doubled. In May 2020, there were more than 1,200 calls to Childline Kenya, up from fewer than 500 in May 2019.
“The increase in calls could be attributed to the fact that children spent a lot of time at home during the pandemic and were not going to school,” said Beatrice Muema, Head of Helpline Operations at Childline Kenya.
“Because of that, you find more children were vulnerable to sexual abuse, neglect and also physical abuse.” Covid-19 placed significant strain on children in Kenya.
Many struggled to cope with the restrictions on movement designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, some faced increased dangers, especially during school closures. Many children were in need of someone who could really listen.
“Children go through a lot of stresses and mostly parents do not understand,” Sillingi said. Childline Kenya was set up in 2004 with support from the Government of Kenya, UNICEF and other partners.
The free 24-hour emergency service allows anyone across the country to anonymously report child abuse and other child protection concerns by calling the free helpline number 116 or visiting Childlinekenya.co.ke. It offers one-on-one counselling and connects children with support services in their communities.
It also works with the Department of Children’s Services to intervene when children are in danger and, when possible, place them with other family members.
“While there were restrictions on movement and children were out of school, this was one of the few channels for children and adults to report incidents of abuse, but also for children to express themselves,” said Bernard Njue Kiura, UNICEF Kenya Child Protection Specialist.
The latest State of the World’s Children 2021: On My Mind: Promoting, Protecting and Caring for Children’s Mental Health. released by UNICEF this week shows children around the world have been locked out of classrooms, and confined in their homes robbing them of the everyday joy of playing with friends – all consequences of the pandemic.
Even before Covid-19, the report notes children and young people carried the burden of mental health conditions without significant investment in addressing them.
It is estimated that more than one in seven adolescents aged 10–19 live with a diagnosed mental disorder globally. Almost 46,000 adolescents die from suicide each year, among the top five causes of death for their age group.
The report also shows and estimated 19 per cent of 15- to 24-year-old Kenyans report often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things.
Meanwhile, wide gaps persist between mental health needs and funding. The report finds that about two per cent of government health budgets are allocated to mental health spending globally. Increasing gap “It has been a long, long 18 months for all of us – especially children.
With nationwide lockdowns and pandemic-related movement restrictions, children have spent indelible years of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, play – key elements of childhood itself,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
UNICEF Representative to Kenya Maniza Zaman said children and young people in Kenya have felt the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their mental health as much as anywhere else in the world. “During school closures, children suffered learning loss and were at greater risk of violence and abuse.
Young people saw their job opportunities shrink. All this takes a toll on mental health,” she adds noting that’s why the UN body worked to ensure that children could access the support they need, including through the 116 helpline and also as they returned to school.