Positive parenting: recognizing signs of mental health illness

LMSW Dr. Veera Mookerjee. PHOTO: courtesy Veera Mookerjee

Mental health is now in the forefront of healthcare. Mental health of young children is of utmost importance, given the present day atmosphere of sudden bursts of anger and unsocial behavior in schools, note experts.

However, mental health awareness is still in its infancy in the South Asian community, according to Dr. Veera Mookerjee, who holds a doctoral degree in Social Work from Yeshiva University in New York, is a New York State Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), and works with the Child Center of New York as a mental health counselor.

“Mental health issues are still a taboo,” notes Mookerjee, a Board member of the New York chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and its Westchester division’s director. “It is something that happens to someone else’s child, many parents feel,” Mookerjee said in an exclusive interview with News India Times/Desi Talk. However, she conceded, there is a definite increase in seeking help in the last few years.

In his annual budget, NYC Mayor Eric Adams has allocated additional funding to mental health services, with specific focus on family and child health. The mayor’s plan also emphasizes community support through organizations which are taking the steps to educate people and encourage them to identify signs of serious or mild mental illness, and seek help, without letting it go unnoticed.

“Parents need to be careful and attentive to not just check items on the behavioral assessment forms at their child’s pediatrician’s office,” said Dr. Mookerjee. The information helps evaluate a child’s mental growth and should not be taken lightly, she added.

In speaking about mental health issues, Dr. Mookerjee was also especially addressing autism, which goes unnoticed many times in the South Asian community.

Identifying Mental Health Issues

During the pandemic, parents began to notice differences in their children’s behavior, she said. Parents could see anxiety, lack of interest, or strained efforts during their children’s online classes. Their concern was activated at that time. During normal times parents are busy at work and do not really know what happens to their children in school on hour-by-hour basis, and many neglect the children’s complaints. In the past three years, parents began asking questions and also seeking professional help, Mookerjee said.

Some of the red flags to be on the alert, according to Mookerjee, are when the child becomes tense and quiet on the way to school and mood swings. In her clinic, Mookerjee counsels South Asian children facing conflict, anxiety, bullying, learning disability, and bottling up their feelings. “Selective mutism when the child recedes into not talking about anything, and becoming numb to the environment, can be seen as early as age 4 or 5,” she said.

What to do after Identifying

“Autism can be mild, moderate or severe”, said Mookerjee whose focus of her doctoral research was on transitioning young adults with autism. She cautioned not to treat all unusual behavior as signs of autism or other mental health issue. Parents need to first eliminate other explanations, and, if the behavior persists, to seek professional help. Her advice to parents is to learn and not assume, to ask questions and research. “Parents need to make sure to attend parent-teacher meetings, ask the teacher about how their child is doing in class academically and socially,” she said.

For children under the age of 5, parents can reach out to the pediatrician, and ask questions she said. “South Asian parents do not ask questions. We do not initiate conversation or speak about troublesome issues,” Mookerjee said.

For children above the age of 5, parents can work with the teacher, and ask questions to the child and the teacher, she said, adding that it can sometimes solve an issue on a smaller scale within the family. Children also need to be encouraged to speak to their teachers or any other adult at school if they are facing a problem.

Where to Find Help

Dr. Veera Mookerjee on an episode on her YouTube Channel ‘Resolveera’. PHOTO: courtesy Veera Mookerjee

Mookerjee offers counseling to all age groups at her own mental health services consultancy, ‘Resolveera’ (https://resolveera.org/). In Mookerjee’s own words, efficacy of a mental health professional requires cultural competency and ‘Resolvera’ scores high on that count. Helpful hints are offered on ‘Resolveera’ YouTube channel and on Mookerjee’s podcasts.

The Child Center of New York (https://childcenterny.org/) has its main office in Kew Gardens, Queens. It also has offices in Jamaica, Flushing, Forest Hills, Corona and more in Queens where they offer mental health services in South Asian languages, said Mookerjee. SAHAARA, South Asian Health Association and Resource Agency (https://sahaaranyc.org/) based in Astoria, Queens, and Renew Therapy (https://www.renew-therapy.org/) also help the South Asian community with different therapy approaches and services. Dr.Tanzia Mustafa, M.D., President of SAHAARA, where Mookerjee is also the Vice President, has been offering awareness workshops, and is scheduled to begin telehealth services in South Asian languages. LMSW Reshama Shah offers professional services at the University Settlement, and offers free educational workshops online.

“We all are a team and together we are covering most of the areas of mental health for the South Asian community. And yet, there is so much more to do,” Mookerjee said.



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