From Iceland — Are The Kids Alright? Shining a spotlight on the state of kids’ mental health

Are The Kids Alright? Shining a spotlight on the state of kids’ mental health

Published April 23, 2023

Photo by
Art Bicnick

Words: Brynja Steinunn Helgesson Danielsen & Yrsa Rún Gunnarsdóttir

We need to talk more about why kids sometimes need to seek help for mental health issues. Sometimes, not everybody is ok. That’s why we went and spoke with Chien Tai Shill, a social worker serving as Clinical Supervisor at the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Department (BUGL) about their work and helping kids with their mental health. 

What’s it like working at BUGL?

I find it very pleasant to work here because I get the opportunity to meet a lot of kids. It’s great to watch them when they start to feel better, because they come in when things are difficult, they don’t feel too well or are struggling. It’s fulfilling to see that change. 

What is the most common reason that kids come to BUGL?

It varies. We have some kids who join what’s called the emergency team. Those are kids who feel very ill — perhaps they have thoughts about not wanting to live or about causing themselves harm. That’s immensely tragic. Luckily, we can support them, find ways to help them and point them toward appropriate services. Then we have an outpatient service for kids experiencing emotional distress, like anxiety or depression. We also meet kids who are diagnosed with ADHD or autism, and kids who identify as trans. 

“Parents are very important and knowing that they are supportive and that the children can turn to them matters a lot.”

How long do children typically stay at BUGL?

Most patients stay with us for a few months or sometimes up to two years in the outpatient ward. Kids and teenagers come for interviews and meet our professionals. We have doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, occupational therapists, art therapists, developmental therapists, speech pathologists and nutritionists. In our inpatient ward, we have kids stay from maybe a few days, up to a few weeks, depending on what they need.  

How old are the kids who seek your help?

It’s common that they’re 14-17 years old. 

What or who can help kids who struggle with mental health challenges?

Firstly, it’s always the family. Parents are very important and knowing that they are supportive and that the children can turn to them matters a lot. Everyone who works and spends time with kids can also support them and listen to them. Kids also need to learn to deal with challenges. Everyone faces adversity in life and we need to learn to face it. We need to support kids to learn how to deal with adversity. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

What effects does your job have on your mental health?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I would be honest if I said it didn’t affect me. Sometimes I get sad because I meet kids who are in complicated situations, which can be tough, or if I feel things aren’t aren’t improving quickly enough — that can be difficult. When that happens, I do the exact same thing as I tell the kids, I seek the support and comfort of my family. Then I’m extremely happy when things go well.

On a scale of 1-10, how much do you appreciate knowing when kids are feeling better?

Ten is not a high enough number. I’m very expressive so you can see it miles away when things go well. It’s an indescribable feeling, it’s that great. 


Yrsa interviewed child psychologist Guðrún Oddsdóttir, as she wanted to find out how to deal with anxiety and how psychologists feel about being psychologists.

The most common challenge children face is anxiety – what can be done to help and what can be done to reduce children’s anxiety?

First of all, we need to stop being afraid of anxiety. Anxiety is a necessary reaction and all living beings can become afraid — it helps us stay alive. Anxiety isn’t dangerous — we can’t die from it, but it’s very uncomfortable. It’s like if the fire alarm would constantly be on in school. It doesn’t mean there’s a fire but it’s very uncomfortable to have it running all the time. Sometimes, we’re supposed to be scared, for example when something dangerous is happening. Anxiety gives us power to leave the situation.

Some people are afraid to ask a question aloud in class, step into an elevator, or sleep in their own bed. It’s good to know why and from there we can work on eliminating that fear. That’s done with practice.

Can kids have depression? How do adults spot it?

Yes, that’s possible. Anxiety is more common in children, but there are kids who suffer from depression. It becomes more common as we get older. The symptoms of children are intense emotions. 

Depressed adults often become more sad, while kids can become more irritated or have mood swings. They can spend a few moments up to a few days being sad. Their interest and happiness towards things constantly decreases and they often feel sad and unsettled. 

“First of all, we need to stop being afraid of anxiety. Anxiety is a necessary reaction and all living beings can become afraid — it helps us stay alive.”

Anxiety is more about worries, often due to something specific, while depression is more about hopelessness, negative thoughts about ourselves and the future. 

How do you know if you suffer from anxiety or depression?

It’s natural to feel bad every now and then, it happens to everyone. It’s good to experience a wide range of emotions. We may want to always be happy and in a good mood, but that’s not life. We all have bad days. Sometimes it’s because of something specific, sometimes nothing special happened but we still don’t feel well. When bad feelings start happening over longer periods of time — for a week or two or longer — without anything specific happening, and maybe we stop eating or eat too much or stop wanting to see our friends, then it becomes a problem. 

If someone says something horrible during a session, how do you deal with it?

When you learn a profession like psychology, we sometimes talk to people who’ve experienced trauma. For example a child who has lost their parent. So you have resources, checklists of what you want to do for the person. Listen to them, create a secure environment, analyse and evaluate the problem and think about their needs. 

You want to make a risk assessment. For example, do I need to call the child protection services or the parents, do I need to cooperate with the school, do I need to talk to the police or the emergency services, or assess the risk of self-harm — stuff like that. I make sure to follow every procedure, listen, be present and build trust. 

Have you cried during interviews?

It happens that I tear up with people in interviews, for example when people experience loss. Children lose a parent or a parent losing their child. It’s okay that people see that I show compassion and understanding. 

What do you think is the most important aspect of being a child psychologist and what do you need to keep in mind when talking to children?

We need to put ourselves in their shoes and realise how somebody understands and receives information so it’s suitable for their age. It’s important to listen and help children tell their story. Not all kids are used to having time to explain and tell their story. I think it’s very important to respect all ages and not talk to kids like they’re stupid or belittle them.

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