Helping teens through the tough times

Teenage author and mental health advocate says empathy is key to supporting struggling young people

Prachaya Sirimahaariyapoya, 15, deputy of the Children and Youth Council in Bangkok and an author. Photos: Prachaya Sirimahaariyapoya

When Prachaya Sirimahaariyapoya was eight years old, she noticed that one of her classmates and a neighbour always wore a long sleeve shirt or jacket even on hot days. One day, the classmate took her jacket off and Prachaya saw several cuts on her classmate's arms. She was under pressure because of her parents' high expectations. Prachaya asked her mother to take her classmate to see a psychiatrist but the psychiatrist needed permission from the classmate's parents. The mother of her classmate thought her daughter was fine and did not need any consultation.

Prachaya's classmate is one of many young people who have mental health issues. According to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Rajanagarindra Institute, a study of over 5,300 subjects aged 11 to 19 years old from 13 provinces stated that 17.5% had depression, 5.1% had suicidal tendencies and 6.4% attempted suicide.

At the age of 11, Prachaya was president of the Children and Youth Council of Bangkapi District and became a key person to send a letter to the director of the Department of Mental Health in 2018. The letter urged changes to the Mental Health Act B.E. 2008 section 21 in order to allow people aged under 18 to undergo mental treatment without parental or guardian permission. There was no movement from authorities for a year. In 2019, Prachaya met with Dr Satit Pitutecha, Deputy Minister of Public Health, to discuss this issue. As a result, people under 18 can now seek help from a psychiatrist or a psychologist in a hospital without parental permission.

Prachaya is now a 15-year-old homeschooled student, activist and deputy of the Children and Youth Council in Bangkok. She works on several projects such as mental health, pregnancy prevention in adolescents and media literacy. She recently released a book, Changemaker, published by Nanmee Books. Changemaker tells readers about teenage mental health issues and her experiences as an activist. Life spoke to Prachaya about her book and adolescent mental health issues.

What was it like when you tried to convince adult committees to allow young people to meet a psychiatrist without their parents' consent?

After the first meeting, only a few committee members supported me. Then, I tried to understand why others ignored the issue and why some of them thought young people had no stress and were not likely to be depressed. I talked to them and found that in the past, cyberbullying didn't exist and even though some of them went through bad experiences, they eventually became successful people. Hence, they assume that it is not necessary to see a psychiatrist. It took time for me to convince them to listen to me and have empathy for young people.

Why do many parents refuse to take their children to see a psychiatrist?

Many parents have the mindset that people who see a psychiatrist are crazy. They also worry that their children will have a history of mental health issues and that will affect their university admission or that people will talk negatively behind their back. Some parents believe that they raised their children properly, so their children do not have a mental health issue. Parents will seek consultation only after their children go through a critical or life-threatening situation. However, by that time, it may be too late to seek help.

How does the situation of young people's mental health issues compare with a few years ago?

In the last three or four years, young people were not aware if they had mental health issues. However, I talked to many psychiatrists and they said many youngsters nowadays understand their mental problems better and have basic information about depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before going to see psychiatrists. I also receive messages from parents discussing their children's problems. I feel that they understand their children's depression and other issues more than before.

How are some mental health issues caused by parents?

Some parents have high expectations of their children. When their children fail to meet their expectations, they do not receive any consolation from their parents. On the contrary, they receive a negative reaction. This makes children feel that parents do not accept their faults, so the children are under pressure to meet their expectations. They are burdened to become successful and this can lead to depression.

Who are the target readers of your book Changemaker?

The target group are all young readers but people of all ages can read it. Most youngsters are afraid of making changes. They wonder if they can accomplish the challenge. I hope the book encourages young people to make changes and do the right thing to make the world a better place. I also hope that adults will understand youngsters and their children from reading the cases presented in my book.

Changemaker by Prachaya Sirimahaariyapoya. Prachaya Sirimahaariyapoya

Can you tell us more about the one-day mental health camp that the Children and Youth Council organises for young people at schools and communities?

We want to inform young people about mental health issues but we do not want to lecture them, so we introduced concepts in the form of games. In the morning, students will learn about depression and basic knowledge about mental health. In the afternoon, there are focus groups. The one-day camp is an important activity because after the focus group, we notice young people suffering from depression and divide them into groups according to their symptoms -- mild, moderate and severe. For the severe symptom group, the members have attempted suicide before. We need to discuss with their teachers in order to send them to a hospital for treatment.

How can people who have different perspectives communicate and understand one another?

Effective communication must come from both parties. People who have never understood each other usually neglect their problems and choose to not communicate with others. If people intend to communicate with each other, they can work things out. For example, when parents complain about why children spend much time on their phones and do not study, their children will not listen to the whining of their parents. Both parents and children must set rules together of how much phone time should be allowed in a day.

What emotion management lessons would you want to include in school lessons?

Emotion management lessons will be a part of health education from primary to high school. We have developed lessons from many countries such as the UK and Japan but we will not mix all the lessons and launch them for Thai students. We will analyse what Thai students need to learn and how to adapt the lessons to be compatible with Thai society. The lessons are not lectures. Students will observe their emotions, record them each day and discuss them with teachers or classmates. Each student will figure out how to manage their emotions by themselves because there is no one formula that can be used for emotion management of different people.

Why do you always emphasise empathy?

Empathy is a skill that everyone can practise to understand others by listening to them. Everyone has this skill from a young age. However, they do not use it as they get older and the skill disappears. If family members have empathy, children will have good mental health because they can consult with their family members. When they are with their family, they are in a safe space. At the national level, if authorities have empathy for people, they will listen carefully to those who encounter problems and try to help them resolve their problems.

Why should people love themselves?

If we love ourselves, we can forgive ourselves in any situation. This is difficult for young people who feel that they have no one to love them. It is normal for youngsters to want affection and attention from others. However, when they realise they have no support from others, they will learn to rely on themselves and love and take care of themselves. When they love themselves, they will not harm themselves.

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