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WORRYING: The increasing number of calls to 15999 Childline raises the question — why do children prefer talking to strangers, rather than their own parents or family members?
KUALA LUMPUR: THE increasing number of primary and lower secondary schoolchildren calling the 15999 child helpline with mental health issues is worrying child experts.
Of the more than 6,000 calls made to the 15999 Childline since its launch in 2010, almost 40 per cent were from those aged between 10 and 15. They were troubled over the way they looked, or were bored, lonely or depressed.
These children were also reported to lack confidence, had eating disorders, phobias and obsessions, and suffered fear and anxiety. In extreme cases, they were suicidal.
The latest figures were released by Childline Malaysia in conjunction with the International Child Helpline Day on May 17.
Apart from psycho-social mental health issues, 20.4 per cent of children who called the helpline complained of abuse and violence.
Another 15.6 per cent had called to request more information on the service.
The figures show a whopping 1,514 contacts regarding boredom, followed by 509 contacts on loneliness, 94 contacts on fear and anxiety, and 50 contacts on depression.
They raise the question -- why do these children prefer talking to strangers over the helpline, rather than their own parents or family members?
Child experts said while the nature of the calls was cause for concern, the consolation was that the country's first dedicated helpline for children was an avenue for them to express their fears and seek help.
Childline Malaysia is a project set up to establish 15999 Childline, in collaboration with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, with the support of Unicef Malaysia, Child Helpline International, Malaysian Children TV Programme Foundation, non-governmental organisations and corporations.
"We believe in helping a child before he or she reaches crisis point. By offering them a friendly listening ear, we are able to support them at an earlier stage," said Childline Malaysia Project director Michelle Wong.
Her views were echoed by Shamsinah Che Shariff, president of the Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia.
"It is a good thing that they have an outlet like this. Why do they prefer to talk to a stranger? Because they want to be heard and there is no one around them they respect or trust to advise them or who can give them suitable answers."
Shamsinah said the association was concerned about psycho-social abuse and children's mental health.
This would be an area of discussion at the 3rd National Conference on "Violence Against Children: Spectrum of Hope 2012" on June 9 and 10. It will also highlight the importance of the adoption of a child protection plan in childcare centres.
Shamsinah said more than 60 per cent of childcare centres and nurseries were overcrowded and do not adhere to the child to minder ratio specified by the Children's Act 2001.
She stressed that children who were well cared for would become good, responsible adults and have a stable life, mentally and socially, while children neglected or abused at a very young age sometimes carried scars on to adulthood.
Professor Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng, Malaysian Representative, Asean Commission of Women and Children, said subjecting children in their formative years to intentional or unintentional violence was detrimental to their mental health.
Chiam, who will be delivering the keynote address, said violence was defined as any act, physical, psychological or emotional, that affected the child negatively.
"Neuroscience studies show that in the development of the brain, any stress can result in secretion of the stress hormone cortisol in quantities that can affect the architecture of the brain by causing malfunctions.
"The first three years are important years for the child's emotional development and control. Excessive secretion of stress hormones can affect brain structure and we can actually be nurturing emotional monsters who can kill or batter people without batting an eyelid."
She said a child who had negative experiences, including suffering violence and abuse, would regard this as normal behaviour.
"Unfortunately, we do not see the effect of stress on the individual manifesting at an early age. It erupts only years later, especially during times of critical stress, mostly at adolescence or adulthood. We can see it happening in cases where children kill their parents or when a mother murders her child."
She said in childcare centres, an infant could experience stress from being left neglected and unattended, abused, force-fed or treated like a nuisance. They can also suffer from depression.
"That's why we need child minders to be properly trained and be able to interpret a child's needs. It's not just about knowing how to feed the child."