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How One Group Is Working to Keep Children Mentally Stimulated During Lockdown

During Vietnam’s first COVID-19 wave, the charity organization Saigon Children worked to make sure vulnerable households had access to necessities like food, medicine and drinking water.

But now, in the midst of the country’s fourth, and worst, wave, parents are telling the charity about new concerns.

They say they’re increasingly worried about their children - not just their physical wellbeing, but their mental health.

“We called up a little over 1,000 parents in poverty and said, ‘What do you need?’ Most of them said, ‘Food,’ but also, ‘We’re a bit worried about our kids,’” said Damien Roberts, executive director of the charity that focuses on access to education for children around Vietnam. “They’re cooped up inside, frustrated. They’re isolated. They’re bored. They’re not able to see their friends.”

For Van Bui Canh and her son, Khang, the lockdown was difficult at first.

Khang, a 4-year-old boy with autism, didn’t understand why he couldn’t go outside to play, and Canh lost income when her company closed temporarily, she said in Vietnamese. (Mai Bui helped with translation)

Khang reading a children's book. Photo provided by Van Bui Canh.

But slowly, the mother and son have been adjusting to life in lockdown and, thanks to an educational intervention program through Saigon Children, Khang has developed a routine that includes exercising, reading books and doing other educational activities.

The charity is prioritizing efforts such as this one that supports children’s mental as well as physical health. Another is the delivery of “COVID backpacks,” which include food, soap and cooking essentials, as well as kids’ books, toys and a guide for parents on how to care for their children’s mental wellbeing and talk about mental health with them.

But the initiative with the broadest reach so far is the organization’s virtual storytime campaign, which involves volunteers recording videos of themselves reading children’s books aloud to be posted on the charity’s Facebook page. Dozens of volunteers have participated, including the UK’s Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Emily Hamblin, fashion model Chau Bui, and business leader and former Shark Tank Vietnam co-host Thái Vân Lin. Tens of thousands of children have tuned in from around the country to watch.

UK Consul General Emily Hamblin taking part in Saigon Children's story reading program.

“I think the program does wonders, not only for the children but also for the storytellers,” said Vi Mai, a teacher who volunteered to read a story for the campaign. “This is one useful, meaningful thing we can invest our time in.”

As the city enters its third month of lockdown, adults and kids alike are struggling.

But adults are able to rely on their life experience to help them through hardship, said Merijn Mattheijssen, general manager of Psychologist Vietnam, a psychology and counseling platform that is active in more than 10 cities around Vietnam.  

"Over the years, (adults) actually learned how to deal with difficult situations,” Mattheijssen said. "For children, they have no experience. They are actually relying on what adults are saying.” 

Kids pick up on the behaviors and the emotions of their parents, he said.

“If we see, for example, that parents are stressed and having symptoms of anxiety, we see that also in (their) children,” he said.

Mattheijssen said he worries that kids are developing screen addictions while stuck inside, spending hours per day watching TV, online gaming or scrolling through social media. Such a high amount of screen time can lead to sleep problems and increased feelings of loneliness.

And by staying in isolation, young people are not interacting with their peers or being exposed to different types of situations at school - experiences that are essential to their social and emotional development and help them learn important skills that they can use to cope with issues later in life, he said.

A 2018 UNICEF study found that around 12% of children in Vietnam suffered from mental health problems, most commonly anxiety, depression, loneliness, hyperactivity and attention deficit issues.

Experts fear the pandemic could cause rates of mental health disorders to rise. "I’m actually really afraid that if this pandemic takes longer than six months, then we will have really serious problems,” Mattheijssen said. "(Kids will be) more likely to develop, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety, or depression, or insomnia, or substance addiction."

In normal times, Jesse Hoang Nguyen would be taking her 8-month old niece on excursions around the city and to playdates with friends her age. But in the era of COVID-19, the youngster has to miss out on these experiences. “She’s quite an active kid, so I think she would love to have friends, even though she’s still a little young,” she said.

Jesse Hoang Nguyen reading a story for children.

Jesse volunteered to read for Saigon Children’s virtual story campaign and chose “Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy,” a Japanese picture book translated into Vietnamese. A sign language interpreter named Mendy accompanied her in the video so that deaf and hard-of-hearing children could be included.

“I want to give (children) a little bit of relief,” she said. “Apart from their family, other people also care about their wellbeing and their happiness while we’re in lockdown.”

In addition to their mental health, child advocates are also concerned about children’s educational outcomes if the pandemic continues. While online school is better than nothing, students who are using computer and phone screens for hours on end can have trouble focusing during online classes.

“After a while, your brain is not picking up new things,” Mattheijssen said.

Some families have had to pull their children from school altogether due to an inability to pay school fees or buy materials.

“Nationally, I think there’s a big chance there’ll be an increased drop out (rate), and, obviously, that’s going to have a long-term effect on lot’s of kids’ lives,” Roberts said.

Adults can support children by encouraging them to talk about how they’re feeling, Mattheijssen said. Parents can also try their best to keep kids in a daily routine and spend time with them practicing a new hobby or learning something useful, like a language or instrument.

"Especially now, it’s super important to be a role model as a parent for the child," he said

Keeping kids busy and entertained may be especially hard for parents who are struggling just to meet their families' basic needs, Roberts said, but he hopes that his organization can play a role in helping children stay happy and healthy during the lockdown.

Grown-ups, too, can benefit from helping the children around them, said The Huy, a classical singer who recorded a virtual story about eggs, potatoes and tea leaves and how each reacts differently when placed in boiling water. The story, he said, causes listeners to reflect on the different ways they can react to difficult situations in their own lives.

The Huy contributing to the effort.

“A pandemic is a very hard time for everyone,” he said. “But if we think positively, this could be a good opportunity for us to slow things down, take the time to share, and engage in meaningful activities. Then, when the pandemic is over, we can all go back to being a better version of ourselves, and so can our children.”