Clinical psychologist Tahirah Ramsook is witnessing children and teenagers go through a challenging time because of covid19.
Young people need stability and structure, she said, but the pandemic – which has led to public health restrictions and social and physical distancing rules – has disrupted and made their lives unpredictable.
A child may experience low moods and low motivation, but those with mental health issues may be affected even more, Ramsook, 29, told WMN. Based in St James, most of her clients are children and teenagers.
Teenagers experience biological and cognitive changes, she said, as they develop their self-identity, wanting independence. However, there are many teenagers in TT with anxiety, trauma, and depression, she said.
In order to help, Ramsook conducts individual and group therapy sessions, as well as performs psycho-educational evaluation, and remedial teaching in reading and comprehension for children.
She also gives talks to parents and teachers, educating them on mental health and behavioural issues so they could, at least, identify any problem.
“It is important that people remember mental illness is an illness. If someone has food poisoning or some kind of physical illness you wouldn’t tell them to get up and get over it. It’s the same thing. It has to do with the chemistry of the brain.”
Ramsook said adults must care for themselves before they can be in a position to help, support and guide children and understand their needs. Adults should exercise, eat and sleep well, and do mindfulness exercises and grounding activities, she said.
“What I have been doing a lot of during this pandemic is coaching parents and helping them to understand the importance of self-care to ensure they do not burn out…Because often times what creates the sadness or the anxiety is when we loop on thoughts about the past or future. Mindfulness really grounds us to the present moment so we live our experiences and emotions, but we learn to accept rather than be controlled by them.”
She said parents can help their children establish a routine which provides a sense of structure and calm in a time of uncertainty. This should include class, homework, revision, chores, physical activity, leisure, and family time.
People are social beings who thrive on connections so family time is important especially, as children cannot be with their friends in school and other social circles, she said.
Another common challenge is children whose parents do not live together for one reason or another, including divorce, or a parent living or working abroad.
She said such children may appear aggressive, do not trust easily, and may not have a strong bond with their parents. Parents may buy things for them to compensate for that lack of attachment, but it does not. Many times, the children do not feel loved, valued, or supported and are often bullied or become bullies.
“That’s why it’s so important to help parents understand how their kids are feeling, to help them provide consistency and predictability in the kids’ environment. For example, in a divorce or even a custody battle, there is a lot of destruction. It’s important that parents make sure they bond with them and not bad talk each other because the kids feel as if they have to choose.”
Ramsook said her job is to help children understand that their feelings are normal, and that it is okay to have two homes. She also stressed that inconsistency in rules and rewards could lead to manipulation by the children.
She enjoys working with youths because they are creative, resilient, honest, and energetic.
“There is a concept called neuroplasticity. Once we expose people to the right experiences and equip them with the right tools, they can thrive. And it’s much easier with youths because the brain is more malleable. So, I enjoy working with them because I feel I can really help them reach their full potential.”
When she was little, Ramsook wanted to be a teacher. She would pretend her dolls were her students and use the walls of her home as a blackboard.
However, as she grew up, she became interested in understanding human behaviour, the ways people communicated, and how they forged connections and relationships. She decided to study psychology at the University of the West Indies, and went on to get a master’s degree in clinical psychology.
After completing her bachelor's degree, she wanted experience in the field so she left her job at a ministry and went to work as an administrative assistant at the office of clinical psychologist, Isolde Ali-Ghent Garcia.
During her master’s studies, she was placed with the psychologist for her internship and when she graduated, Ali-Ghent Garcia kept her on.
“She’s very experienced. I feel blessed to have been trained and supervised by her during this time. Then I worked with her for a year or two and after that I branched off and started to share a space with her to work independently as well as work alongside her.”
Ramsook also believes in “giving back” so, in addition to educating parents and teachers, she also does community and pro-bono work.
During the pandemic, mental health services are needed but many people cannot afford it, she said, so she offers reduced fees or free sessions depending on the family’s circumstances.
She said some children are receptive to therapy while others are resistant depending on the environment from which they came and what they have heard people say about therapy.
A good rapport with a child is important to having a successful outcome, she said, because if they do not connect with the therapist, the child will not respond. That engagement is important as many parents feel hopeless, not knowing what to do to help their children navigate this time in their lives.
However, raising and assisting children who can thrive is not just the job of parents, teachers, and therapists.
"We are all stakeholders in children's lives. This is a difficult time for everyone so we must be patient, and compassionate knowing everyone is doing the best they can. we must also be self-compassion, and remember to work together."