Coping with Kinabalu

Mental resilience for children

One might describe the experiences that the children and teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School had at Kota Kinabalu during the recent earthquake as harrowing. Their experiences would certainly qualify as traumatic.

Not just because there was a threat to their lives and safety. But because the event was unexpected; because they weren’t prepared for it; and because they were helpless to prevent it. And because these things can happen anywhere, it’s possible to experience a traumatic eventeven without a natural disaster.

We can also be affected by the natural disaster. We also have emotional responses to the event, though our responses may differ from one another. Common responses include being more irritable or moody than usual, feeling anxious or overwhelmed, numbness, sadness, having recurring memories about the event, difficulties concentrating, social withdrawal and changes in your eating/sleeping patterns. Read more about these emotional responses here and here.

So what can you do? Plenty. Here are some ways you can help:

1. As parents
Parents can support their children by letting them know that they can ask questions and express their emotions. The ADAA (US) also advises adults to limit excessive watching and replays of the natural disaster with younger children, and to be available to older children and teenagers who do want to watch or read the news and discuss the event.

2. As teachers
Teachers can play an important role in supporting both the children who have experienced the natural disaster and others who haven’t experienced the earthquake but who are affected by the event. In addition to providing a safe environment for children to share their thoughts and emotions, teachers are well-placed to keep a watch for signs and symptoms of distress among children affected by the event.

3. As grandparents
Apart from explaining the event and answering children’s questions in a language that children understand, grandparents can also help children, younger children in particular, find the right words to express their emotions. More tips for adults can be found here.

4. As family members 
In addition to being available to listen, other adults can provide support by helping families return to familiar routines, including regular meal times and sleep schedulesexercise and spending time with loved ones.

5. As a helping professional
Among the various things which APA advocates mental health professionals do to support those affected by a traumatic event, it’s worth reminding ourselves about two things in particular. First, not everyone who is affected by a natural disaster will necessarily experience a traumatic event. Second, not everyone who needs support is ready to receive help. And one more thing. we can be helpful if we’re also taking care of ourselves. Read more about the importance of self-care and various strategies for self-care here.

6. As a medical professional
Social work and medical professionals can help by being available to listen to their clients and patients when they feel ready to talk. The US CDC has a tip sheet for helping individuals cope with a traumatic event.

7. Everybody
And not everyone who has been affected by a traumatic event wants to talk about it, their thoughts, and their emotions. We can be helpful in just being there, and by providing help in more practical ways. Providing chicken stew for dinner, helping to mind the kids for an afternoon, and helping someone run an errand are all ways we can help. The RCP (US) has other useful resources on coping after a traumatic event.

Advertisements

Unsuitable behaviour

It’s the story of “the suitor who won’t take no for an answer” (Straits Times, 11 March 2014).

Boy meets girl. They go on a couple of dates. On date #3, they discuss marriage and children. Jealous, possessive, and manipulative behaviours surface. She stops answering his calls. But he continues the incessant phone and text campaign. She closes her facebook account and opens a new one—twenty times. He calls her at the office, turns up at her workplace, verbally abuses her family on the phone and online, sends her flowers at her home to let her know that he knows where she lives. She makes numerous formal complaints. But the damage is done.

At what point should we do something about it? Let’s rewind.

Boy meets girl. They go on a couple of dates. On date #3, they discuss marriage and children. Sharing one’s views about marriage and children. Yes, one expects to have that discussion at some point. But talking about getting married at date #3? Jealous, possessive, and manipulative behaviours surface. Alarm bells start to ring. One would think about not having any more to do with this person. That’s exactly what happens. She stops answering his calls. But he continues the incessant phone and text campaign. She closes her facebook account and opens a new one. Wait. Doesn’t this sound a lot like bullying?

The official definition of bullying is “a situation where a powerful bully intentionally harms a vulnerable and isolated victim through repeated hurtful behaviours that can result in damaging consequences” (Singapore Children’s Society). Said another way, it’s when someone does something with the intention of hurting someone else, more than once. In fact, online bullying is up for discussion today—”Let’s start an open conversation about bullying” (Today Online, 11 March 2014). So it’s not a story about a “suitor”, but about a “bully”.

Legal protection is one thing. But the real issue is the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the person who has been bullied and/or been the subject of harrassment.

There is much consensus that bullying has negative consequences in terms of poor physical and mental health: Bullied children are at risk for depression and have poor self-worth (CNN, 17 Feb 2014), while harrassment puts adults at risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (www.livescience.com).

So what can we do about it?

Writing a letter to the bully to communicate that the behaviour is unwelcome, is an important first step. Writing down all encounters factually (supported by audio-video documentation and copies of any written correspondence) with dates, times, witnesses, and location details, in chronological order, is equally important.

In the meantime, we can reduce the negative effects of bullying and harrassment by taking some extra steps:

1. Change your mobile phone number and give it out to your close friends and family. They have your interests at heart. So they will understand that you need to do this.

2. Carry a second mobile for work and activate caller ID. You could redirect your direct dial office phone to your new mobile number and use voicemail to screen your calls.

3. Request that your telco block your telephone numbers from being displayed on the called party’s phone (e.g., the Caller Number Non-Display option).

4. Ask everyone to email you rather than call you (you can call them back).

5. Set up a new alias email address at work with your initials instead of your full name.

6. Set up a new personal email account. Give it out sparingly, as least initially.

7. Open a new facebook account, choosing the privacy settings which allow only friends of friends to search for you and only friends to message you and access your newsfeed, pictures, and posts. Choosing a profile picture and profile name which conceals your identity, declaring fewer pieces of information about yourself (e.g., contact details, your social networks, the city you live in, the schools you’ve attended), and adding friends judiciously are all key to playing a successful cat and mouse game. 

8. Allow only trusted friends and family to access your contact details and online status on messenger platforms such as  whatsapp.

9. Change your routines by choosing a different route to work or by leaving home or the office at different times.

10. Ask your extended family to call before coming to visit. Make arrangements so that you’re not the first to arrive when you meet your friends on social occasions.

Staying safe

reading the signs

Cyberstalking’s a word that’s frequently bandied about in the news.

But the real deal really does hurt. These recent reports (“Leandra Ramm’s cyberstalker gets 3 years’ jail“, CNA, 20 Dec 2013; “Cyber stalking case: American singer harassed by Singaporean has written an e-book about it“, Straits Times, 4 Dec 2013; “Singaporean who cyber-stalked US singer Leandra Ramm jailed 3 years”, Straits Times, 20 Dec 2013) bring to light the psychological consequences of exposure to online harassment: symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (“He kept me in a virtual prison”, Straits Times, 23 Dec 2013).

But it can be suggested that two emails of harassment, of any nature, are already one too many. Actually, two too many. Given the serious consequences of cyberbullying on mental health, it’s important to know what to do in that situation.

The case above also raises the issue of being alert to situations in which interactions involve hurtful communications and unhealthy relationships. We may not be stalked by someone with an antisocial personality disorder, which as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is “a type of chronic mental condition in which a person’s ways of thinking, perceiving situations and relating to others are dysfunctional — and destructive“, but we may have come across or had to deal with someone who, to some degree, shows poor respect for others, lacks compassion for others, and is manipulative towards others. It may be someone we spend time with regularly (Psychology Today offers advice on how to gently let go of a toxic friend). It could be someone with whom we have had only online contact with. Either way, we need to recognize a situation for which we want to do something about.

A CNN report offers advice on how to deal with stalkers on the Facebook platform (“How to handle a cyberstalker“, CNN, 21 July 2010), while Yahoo has general tips for dealing with a cyber stalker. And WikiHow has an excellent step-by-step guide. The advice from www.bullyingonline.org succinctly states, the first rule is not to engage. It’s excellent advice, but in this digital age, you can protect yourself with one more thing you can use to your advantage: Emails can be automatically filed in a folder you’ve created specifically for the purpose of a) not reading it and b) documenting all correspondence, using keywords in a rule or filter in your email client. The canned response function on gmail is one such example. Finally, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) offers wonderful advice we should heed. Stay safe!