“It is important to share our vulnerable side, to have empathy for others and to be compassionate”

Gretta Escurra Jara is the Founder of Vida Valiosa Psychological Center. As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and DBT Psychotherapist (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), she specializes in complex cases with personality disorders; trauma due to abuse; suicidal behaviors in adolescents, young people and guidance to their families, among other mental health issues. In this exclusive interview for the 3Love Inc. blog, we talk about the importance of addressing mental health issues in infants, children and adolescents, at the family, educational and societal levels.

Gretta Escurra Jara is the Founder of Vida Valiosa Psychological Center. As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and DBT Psychotherapist (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), she specializes in complex cases with personality disorders; trauma due to abuse; suicidal behaviors in adolescents, young people and guidance to their families, among other mental health issues. In this exclusive interview for the 3Love Inc. blog, we talk about the importance of addressing mental health issues in infants, children and adolescents, at the family, educational and societal levels.


Why is it important to take care of mental health from an early age?


Based on my experience, the core of a person’s wellbeing is to have early interventions from an early age. From the time we are babies we generate an imprint that in some way or another will generate a certain predisposition in the person to relate and behave. Therefore, healthy relationships worked on from an early age will generate that their mental health can flow over time. That is why it is crucial to work on mental health from an early age. This work is done by reinforcing bonds, satisfying a baby’s needs, attending quickly to his or her call. We do not have to wait for him to cry, but there are gestures and movements that demand attention and if we know how to attend to him, if the baby spends time with his mother, which is the first bond that needs to be strengthened, then we are already creating a basis for this person to have a good mental health and be able to enjoy his day to day life. Sometimes we believe that we can take the baby from here to there and put him in different spaces, without respecting that he basically needs to rest and drink milk. The brain is chemically working certain substances that can be more stressful or more pleasant. So no matter how much we tell a baby, “I’ll be back, I love you,” if I’m not with that baby, if I don’t give him the right feeding at the right time, there’s no way that baby gets the message. There is no sense of well-being. That’s why most babies cry. So it’s important to be able to work and attend to these things from the time they are little. You don’t have to wait until they are children or adolescents, but everything starts when they are babies.


What types of mental health problems are common in children and adolescents?


In the United States, suicide is a cause of death from the time they are children. It is the second leading cause of death in adolescence; worldwide it is the fourth or fifth. From an early age there is a feeling of emptiness, that they can no longer cope with the emotional discomfort and they want to end it by taking their own lives. Especially in the West, the statistics of depression, behavioral problems and impulsivity are increasing. From an early age we cannot talk about diagnoses, because only when one is young, we can say that he/she has a problem and it will be very difficult to get out of it. But from an early age we already see maladaptive behaviors to regulate themselves. Children who at school probably also have difficulties in adapting precisely because there is this lack of accompaniment. We need an upbringing that is closer to a valuable connection with the human being so that, hand in hand with resources and strategies, they can solve the problems that arise from an early age. But we cannot expect a child to regulate himself quickly, he goes through a whole process. He is not ready initially because his brain is not fully developed. But if we see that there is a repetitive pattern of problems, then we notice that there is a difficulty that needs to be addressed.


How can parents or adult family members act if they identify that the child or adolescent has symptoms of a mental health problem?


It is always important to see a specialist. While it is true that it is not good to exaggerate, we cannot normalize that there are repetitive behaviors and that the emotional discomfort of children extends over time. So it is always important to see a specialist for a previous evaluation to see if everything is all right. It is important to receive guidance as parents, to receive parenting resources that allow us to optimize our upbringing. Not only from the father or the mother, but also from society, the government, policies, culture, from many things in a systemic way that can generate a more conscious idea of what healthy parenting is, because when we say that the child has a problem, it is not only the child, it is the context, the environment, it is the parents. Treatments at an early age are not done 100% with the children, they are done hand in hand with the parents or primary caregivers. I may think I am doing things in the best way, but I am probably not, so it is also important that there is guidance, but not only at the level of a doctor’s office, but also at the macro level. That’s why I really liked the role that 3Love has. Although it is true that the government or educational policies are working on some objectives, in reality there is still a long way to go for children to have a more adequate upbringing. So it originates from that, at a macro level to generate greater awareness as well, so that families can mobilize when they identify that things may not be going well and go to a specialist for an early evaluation.


In educational centers, how can we contribute to generate environments that are safer for the mental health of students?


Schools are precisely the place where we are seeing that there is much more violence. The behavior of some children, teenagers or adolescents expresses a little more insensitivity, they do not think about what the other feels. There are many cases of children who commit suicide or are bullied or beaten by their classmates, so this is happening a lot in schools of all socioeconomic levels. We need an articulated work from the government, which can promote violence prevention programs. We can also try to strengthen this personal factor in terms of the skills that the child or adolescent may have, resources to tolerate emotional discomfort and to be more effective at the interpersonal level. Children, adolescents and teenagers need to learn to have these resources so that they can deal with problems more effectively. When a child is being mistreated or an adolescent is going through very tense situations and suddenly does not know how to communicate that, only keeps silent or cannot express that he does not want to be treated like that, we notice that there is also a deficiency in his abilities. Or suddenly a teenager or adolescent ends a relationship with someone and does not tolerate pain, does not tolerate sadness, what does he/she choose? What is the way out for this person? If he/she does not have the resources, he/she will not be able to cope with these day-to-day things and it is important that he/she can solve them in an effective way and that it does not transcend to a more complex problem. So at the school level we need these violence prevention programs, but also programs that can facilitate resources so that children can develop the necessary skills to face these problems, in coordination with parents. When the school psychologist or the tutor finds that there is a problem that the child cannot solve, it is important that there is an early referral to a specialist or clinical psychologist so that, together with the parents, they can solve what they detect at an early age.


What actions are needed at the broader societal level to combat stigmas about mental health and get people to talk more openly about these issues and seek professional help?


It is important that within society all individuals, families and group meeting spaces can begin to organize open spaces where we can discuss our own experiences and what we need from each other. It is still very patent to say phrases such as: “We must have a positive attitude”, “Crying is for the weak”, “Everything has a solution, it should not affect us”. The message that we always need to be well is very strong, so what happens to people who do not always feel well? What happens to people who have problems every day? Then suddenly feeling sadness is seen as something of someone who is weak, who is looked down upon by others, or at least that is the idea that can be generated in that person. So starting to generate these spaces in which we can show ourselves vulnerable could help more people to come and express much faster that they have a discomfort, that they need someone to accompany them and help them to solve it. I think it is important to generate those spaces to be able to share our vulnerable side and to do it in a compassionate way, so that we can generate that change of chip and have a little more confidence and know that we will be accepted when we show ourselves as we are. It is important at the societal level to generate that empathy and be compassionate. Sometimes we have this idea that we can cope with everything, that we don’t need anyone and we always have to be fine. We are not listening to our own needs, but I could assure you that the body speaks through gastritis, strong migraines or anything else, because we do not listen to our body and the needs we have. And when we talk about emotions, we talk about our body and all that chemical movement that our brain has. There are people who can work better on their personal resources, but the truth is that the statistics of suicides, mistreatment in schools, cases of violence, femicides, etc. are increasing.


How do you think parents can guide their children so that surfing the Internet and social networks is safe and healthy?


If we are talking about little ones, definitely, no matter how much control there is, any device or screen is harmful to the brain. There is research that shows that screens chemically generate some substances that stress the brain much more and predispose to greater irritability and depression, even in adults. So the brain of a little one who is developing and has been exposed to screens is also prone to develop mental health problems. In other more advanced countries, even the use of cell phones by children is being banned. Sometimes children have cell phones from an early age or they are eating while watching the Tablet or they are all in the family with a device in their hands and this is definitely not favorable for health or for the brain. So knowing that, it is important to reduce as much as possible the time of use of any device and if we need to use it for educational purposes, it is good that there can be a close supervision. We can also restrict some contents and web pages so that they are not within the reach of children. Likewise, we can make sure that those activities that are given by a technological device are for the whole family, i.e., watching a movie or listening to music together. It is important that parents can share activities that children or adolescents like, but that it remains only a recreational activity, it is not a basic activity or a basic necessity, it should be just a moment of the day, a movie or a game, something specific. It is not advisable to allow our children to spend a lot of time on the social networks and, if possible, that they are not with the devices in their hands all day.


How did your vocation for psychology and specifically child and adolescent care originate in you?


I think it was precisely the need that at some point I had as a child or adolescent to have guidance and clarity on how to cope with my own personal experiences. Many times I felt that I did not have someone who could guide me and that made me think that there are also other people who can go through the same thing and who need that psychological support. So I decided to prepare myself and learn how to help others. And so now, together with a team of professionals, we have created the Vida Valiosa Psychological Center, which works with children, adolescents, young people and adults. We are about to have a more personalized space, which is preventive and promotes early work with children, called Valuable Connection. Now that I have my baby, I have learned many things as a psychologist and I see the importance of replicating this and making it known. All these things motivate me so far.


By: Juan Carlos Ugarelli

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