One night Dr. Margaret V. Sherrer was working as an emergency clinician at the South Shore Centre at Rhode Island, USA, when a 14-year-old girl, Rachel Smith (name changed), came in. She was mentally disturbed, and was threatening to kill herself.
“I knew there was a lot of chaos going on in her home,” says Margaret. “Her step-father was emotionally abusive. I struggled over the case. If I hospitalised Rachel, I would be passing the message that she was the problem, but that was not true. Finally, I realised that the best way to proceed was to increase the level of support to the family.”
Margaret, a Fulbright Scholar, as well as an Associate Professor of Human Services at Lyndon State College in Vermont, is spending four months in Kochi, along with her husband Dr. Thomas O’Hare, another Fulbright Scholar, and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. Thomas is doing research on mental health at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Kochi.
Like Rachel, many teenagers in America are going through a difficult time. They suffer from depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and social phobias. “They see violence, alcohol, and drug addiction in their own homes,” says Thomas. “They grow up in poor neighbourhoods where there is a lot of crime, apart from sexual and physical abuse.”
What is aggravating the situation are the high rates of divorce in American society. “The family plays a major role in the emotional health of a child,” says Margaret. “So, when things break down between husband and wife, it affects the child immediately.”
But all is not gloomy. There are parents who work together for the sake of the children. “And they are able to provide consistent care,” says Margaret. “This takes out the stress that is going on in some households. You have two people constantly fighting with each other, and there is a lot of chaos. It becomes calmer once a divorce takes place and parents start living apart.”
Unfortunately, there are some fathers who live in another city and cannot be physically present in their children’s lives. This can have a long-term impact, especially for a son. “When you study the behavioural problems in male adolescents and young adults one of the key factors is the absence of a father,” says Thomas.
Thomas and Margaret were giving a talk to the teachers of the Rajagiri Public School at Kalamassery on emotional and behavioural disorders in children and adolescents.
But both the academics have been impressed by the youngsters they have encountered in Kochi. “They are very polite,” says Thomas. “And that is pleasing to see.” The Kochi teenagers seemed happy and curious. “One criticism about the United States is that the people are very ethno-centric [belief in the superiority of one's own ethnic group],” says Margaret. “But the children in Kochi have been curious about us. They ask questions about where we come from and want to know more about the United States.”
What amazed Thomas and Margaret was how skilled the youth were in speaking multiple languages. “That is not prevalent in the United States ,” says Thomas. “Apart from that, with American youth, there is less formality and respect of authority figures. However, in the educational context, too much obedience to authority may not be a good thing, just as too little is. So, it is important to teach students to challenge their teachers, while being respectful at the same time.”
Meanwhile, whether East or West, one of the pressing issues about teenagers are their easy access to pornography on the Internet. “It is normal to be curious about sex during adolescence,” says Margaret. “So youngsters check out pornography to understand what is going on. However, pornography is a huge area, with lots of sub-cultures, like child and violent pornography. It demeans women and creates an unrealistic view of sex. That can be damaging to youngsters.”
But Margaret says that good parenting, supportive teachers, and allowing teenagers to ask questions about sex, balances out the long-term negative effects of pornography.
Asked the definition of a good parent, Thomas says, “He or she is someone who can be honest, loving and compassionate. They take the time and energy to be attentive, and understand the child's feelings. Good parents help children solve their problems. Yet, at the same time, when it is necessary, they assert their parental authority.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)