CHILDREN as young as four years old are experiencing mental health issues such as stress and anxiety, the Children's Commissioner has said.
Koulla Yiasouma was speaking to the Ulster Gazette during a visit to The Grove Nursery School in Armagh.
She was at the school to observe and participate in 'Shine Time', in which staff and pupils celebrate daily achievements and aim to boost the children's self esteem, with the emphasis being on promotion of good mental health in early years.
Later in the morning she had an informal lunch with a group of past parents, discussing how high quality Nursery Education meets the needs of not only the children, but parents too.
Ms Yiasouma said that her trip to The Grove had been enjoyable.
“It's lovely to see normality, lovely to see the kids’ happy faces and lovely to see them get ready on their journey to school,” she said.
“It's very much a caring and family-orientated learning atmosphere which is what they need. It irons out any niggles they have in getting ready and that their families may have too. It was a lovely morning.”
The impact that COVID-19 has had on adults, whether that be over their employment, health issues or concerns about the virus, is feeding down to children, the commissioner said.
“We are seeing teachers and principals reporting mental health issues, anxiety issues and stress issues amongst very young people,” said Ms Yiasouma.
“There are two reasons for that – one is that we are seeing higher levels of stress particularly because of COVID. If you look at a family where the adults are stressed and worried about issues then of course the children are going to pick that up and it is going to affect them.
“We are looking for it now too - we know that wee ones can become stressed and we are understanding, which is a good thing. It's good that we are recognising it in a way that we didn't before.”
Should parents feel like they are struggling or if they are concerned about their children, they should speak up, she added.
“If parents think that their child is stressed or if they feel stressed then there is no shame in asking for help, absolutely no shame.
“The sooner people can ask for help, the easier it sometimes is to sort the issue out and nip it in the bud and the sooner people can get on with their lives.”
Ms Yiasouma said that mental health issues within young people was “ definitely something we are hearing a lot more of recently”.
She continued: “With COVID, we still don't know the impact that mental health issues have had and are going to have.
“I would be a strong supporter of having dedicated mental health services and emotional mental health services in pre-school and primary school, as well as post primary school and I'm really pleased that the Minister has announced extra money for this. The sooner we can get that money on the ground the sooner our children can get the support they need.”
A list of resources for parents who feel they need help are available on the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People's website – niccy.org