KARACHI: The Aga Khan University has partnered with a range of organizations to launch free, online capacity building sessions for parents of children with mental health issues and developmental disorders whose treatment has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative brings together professionals from across the country, including developmental paediatricians, speech and occupational therapists, child psychiatrists, pediatric psychologists, and student volunteers.
The sessions will see parents receive training on how to deliver rehabilitative care and essential therapies at home if they are unable to access the usual support. For example, instructors will guide parents on how to provide therapies to help children with developmental delays to improve their functional independence and assist parents in managing behavioural issues that have emerged during the pandemic.
Direct sessions between therapists and adolescents facing psychological challenges will also be offered, emphasizing on stress management techniques.
“Children dealing with developmental delays or behavioural disorders need ongoing, special attention,” said Dr Ayesha Mian, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the AKU. “This pandemic has widened disparities in access to essential mental healthcare, and our initiative seeks to help parents continue therapy for their children at home.”
Many people are suffering from feelings of fear and anxiety due to the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. However, parents of children with special needs must also cope with the fear of their child’s development regressing due to the disruption in their therapy.
“Children on the autism spectrum can regress and lose the gain they had made in speech therapy,” said Fatima Karim, one of the initiative’s lead organizers and a master’s degree student at the AKU. “Those with conduct disorders may become aggressive towards siblings or pets. Adolescent boys and girls may find changes in mood, sleep, or appetite. Such behaviours may get worse with a gap in care.”
“For a developing nation like ours, this initiative would be a game-changer in terms of cost-effective provision of mental health support to all eligible children based on their needs rather than diagnostic labels,” said Dr Sidra Kaleem Jafri, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health at the AKU. “For professionals, this is an opportunity to equip themselves with innovative health care delivery skills and help parents support their children.”
Considering the need for such support for parents, Dr Sarah Saleem, Professor of Community Health Sciences at the AKU and the principal investigator of the project, mentioned that the team hopes to continue the project until the lockdowns are eased.
The initiative is part of a large coalition, Pakistan COVID Mental Health Response, which offers free mental health services through various programs to those affected by distress during the pandemic.
The partners include AKU’s departments of Community Health Sciences, Psychiatry, and Paediatrics and Child Health; Taskeen Health Initiative; Interactive Research & Development; Saaya Health Tech; and the Community Innovation Hub through Sehat Kahani. The program is being supported by the British Asian Trust, CareTech, and Cosaraf Charitable Foundation.