A pediatric psychologist has warned that study-related neuroses have reached crisis levels among Ho Chi Minh City's students, a problem busy parents and underpaid student counselors have failed to grasp.
Dr. Lam Hieu Minh, deputy head of the pediatrics department at Ho Chi Minh City Mental Health Hospital says his department is no longer just busy during exam season.
These days, it receives an average of 600-700 new patients a week. If the trend continues, Minh warned, the hospital will be overrun in five years.
Minh said the prime reason for mental problems among students is pressure exerted by teachers and family members.
The victims are pushed by their parents to bring home high scores, follow set study and career paths or suffer undue criticism from teachers for minor mistakes.
“Many pediatric mental problems develop without parents noticing early warning signs," Minh said. "They only send their kids for treatment when their conditions get out of hand."
In a survey conducted on 500 10th-12th grade students last year as part of a graduate thesis for Ho Chi Minh City Medical University, more than 65 percent of the respondents reported study-related mental disorders, including depression, sleep and anxiety disorders.
Minh said his hospital treats many more such cases every year.
The hospital saw 25,000 in and outpatients of school age in 2011, he said. That number rose to 28,000 in 2012 and more than 32,000 in 2013.
Doctors have already reported a significant year-on-year rise in pediatric patients during the first part of 2014.
Minh said most of the children, including many with good academic records, suffer from anxiety disorders like panic attacks and phobias.
Others report feeling depressed.
Minh recalled personally treating a high school student who had developed a phobia of the number four.
“In many subjects, the child could only reach the rank four despite a lot of self-inflicted pressure.
“Every time the child saw the number four, he/she would flee,” he said.
Another such patient, a 10th grader identified only as N.V.M., broke down during a selection round designed to form a team to represent the city at a nationwide academic decathlon.
“Through careful examination, we discovered that M. suffered from an anxiety disorder. His arms and legs frequently shook and sweated. The mere sight of books sent him into a frightened panic,” Minh said.
Another boy from a gifted high school in the city began suffering from a behavioral disorder after he applied to a school recommended by his family .
His family suggested his current school after they began worrying that he would not score high enough on an entrance exam to be admitted to the school of his choice. They turned out to be right and he has been frustrated ever since.
They boy became easily irritated and changed his behavior both at school and home.
Schools, parents should be nicer
Minh said the hospital spent six months treating an eighth grade girl pushed to depression by a combination of family strife and bullying friends.
After teachers noticed that she rarely spoke and didn’t communicate with anyone, they recommended her mother take her in for a psychological examination.
“She had wanted to visit the school’s psychological consultation office, but was scared of further teasing from her friends,” Minh said.
Another patient was a boy who became terrified of a female teacher who frequently scolded him.
He proved too intimidated to even ask permission to go for the toilet and urinated in his pants during class.
Minh said parents need to pay more attention to their kids. They need to set aside time to at least have dinner with their children and speak to them before bed.
Many parents these days don’t do that, and fail to catch any psychological changes in their kids, Minh said.
He said early signs of mental problems include changes in habits, reduced expressions of emotion, reduced interest in speaking and bathing, sleep loss, too much time spent on online/PC games, and shaking in the arms and legs.
Sudden outbursts of anger, resistance or acts of violence are also among the symptoms.
Tran Khac Huy, head of the Student Services Office at the city education department, said there are nearly 120 student counselors in the city, and that’s a very small number.
Wages of VND2-3 million (around US$100) a month have not encouraged many people to sign up for the job and have failed to encourage the current counselors to do a good job.
Huy said several schools fail to take the role of the counselors seriously.
Instead, schools assign those people to perform a job akin to high school hall monitors--ensuring that students follow minor regulations regulating uniforms or smoking.
Such activities have sabotaged the image of the counselors as friendly confidants with whom students can share their problems, he said.
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