Nationwide study says one in two children suffers from anxiety

Researchers say Maltese children and teens need healthy coping mechanisms to deal with widespread emotional issues and anxiety 

24% of youths said they had received unwanted or nasty emails, texts or messages intended to hurt them
24% of youths said they had received unwanted or nasty emails, texts or messages intended to hurt them

A survey by leading psychiatrists among 755 children and youths aged five-16 has identified a staggering 62% being at risk of emotional problems and a host of issues which fell short of a mental disorder.

In a first-of-its-kind assessment of Maltese childhood and adolescence, psychiatric registrar Rosemarie Sacco said more youths need healthy coping mechanisms that can help them deal with challenging situations that will serve them into adulthood.

“We don’t want adolescents to grow up not being able to handle touch situations – we want the next generation to be capable of regulating their emotions effectively,” Sacco said. 

The study was conducted by the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health and the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector, searching for the prevalence of mental disorders among Maltese children and adolescents, supervised by Dr Nigel Camilleri.  A second phase of the study will be completed by 2022.

In what are the results for the first phase of the study, the study found that 60% were unlikely to have a mental disorder.

But the survey found that 23% of 5-10-year-olds and 39% of 11-16-year-olds were at risk of emotional problems; likewise, 27% of 5-10-year-olds and 27% of 11-16-year-olds were likely to have hyperactivity problems, and 23% of 5-10-year-olds and 26% 11-16 year-olds were likely to ave anxiety problems. 

Sacco explained that some youths don’t score high enough to be classified with a specific disorder. However, these youths still have problems that will follow them into adulthood if not resolved. “These issues could affect school, and eventually work and in extreme cases can lead to unemployment,” Sacco said. 

The study also touches base on how aware parents are of these issues in youths.

It found that 17% of parents had reported problems with them functioning as a family.

Breaking that down further, only 11% of parents said they were very concerned with bullying. 6% said they were very concerned with social media-related problems, 1% said they were very concerned with alcohol and substance abuse problems, and 0% said they were very concerned with problems related to self-harm.

Sacco highlighted that internationally, at least 50% of youths who reach the threshold to be diagnosed with a mental disorder are not. This figure could be higher for youths who do not meet the threshold.

“Not enough parents and teachers are recognising that youths are not coping – this results in them not being diagnosed.

“This is why more awareness needs to be raised because there are youths who don’t reach the threshold yet are still suffering and not being given healthy mechanisms for later on in life,” she said.

Sacco added that this extends to GPs: she said more of an effort should be made on their end to catch symptoms. “Schools also need to recognise symptoms more. Remember a school is an ideal place because children spend a large amount of time there. This is where they learn good social skills. So it is the prime place for teachers to pick up these issues.”

Sacco said the earlier adolescents are given coping mechanisms, the greater the chance of them not needing medication in the future.

“We’re not trying to label adolescents; what we’re trying to do is get to them early enough that medication is not needed because it should always be a last resort. If adolescents come to us at a later stage, medication may in some cases be the only route to go down.” 

The World Health Organisation estimates that over half of all cases of mental disorders would have begun before age 14. However, the majority of these remain untreated well into adulthood.

The more tremendous pressures on families and young people in the digital age may increase psychological distress. And emotional difficulties among young people are associated with education failure, school expulsion, occupational failure, intimate relationship breakdown and criminality.

Prevalence of bullying among youths  

The study found that 24% of youths said they had received unwanted or nasty emails, texts or messages intended to hurt them.

13% said that someone posted nasty things about them on social media. 24% said they felt ignored and left out on social media, and 6% said someone had posted inappropriate pictures of them on social media without their permission to hurt.

It also found that 31% of youths said that they had been the victim of physical bullying. Sacco said this number was high and that in the second phase of the study, they would be looking closer at this number to expand on the circumstances of these cases.

15% also said they had had their belongings stolen or destroyed. 44% said they had been called names, were made fun of or teased in a hurtful way, and 34% said they were ignored or left out of things on purpose.   

Taboos still preventing youths from coming forward

Sacco said the study also revealed that when it came to self-harm and substance abuse, many taboos still hinder youths from talking and reaching out.

The study found that just 3% of youths between the ages of 11-16 drank alcohol, and just one participant reported using drugs, specifically an inhalant. It also found that 9% of 11-16-year-olds reported self-harming behaviour. 

Sacco cast doubt on these figures – she said that the likelihood was that they were higher. “There is still a lot of taboo and stigma in Malta – many people are still not willing to talk about substance abuse and self-harm. This means youths are less unlikely to reach out and admit to this stuff.”