Mental health matters – and here’s what we can do to help

sucharita iyer

We’re finally starting to prioritize young people’s mental health and well-being. However, we still have a long way to go. In the meantime, we need a perspective shift towards mental health.  

Awareness and action to address mental health issues are growing rapidly in India, with the need for increased awareness and better mental healthcare services at the fore. However, these conversations often leave out the critical demographic of young people. As a result, they remain largely  under-addressed when it comes to mental health.  

Presently, every fifth Indian is aged between 10 and 19. Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable period, owing to the significant developmental and psycho-social changes that characterize it. Adolescents’ lives are shaped by this transitionary phase as they enter adulthood, marked by new and unprecedented social and emotional experiences. It is also often overlooked that this stage is one of increased vulnerability to mental health issues , owing to rapid changes in peer relations and interests, physical and biological changes, and ambiguity in various aspects of life, ranging from education to career prospects and the future. The National Mental Health Survey (2015-2016) indicated that over 9.8 million teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 live with depression. Often precipitated by social and cultural stressors, young people’s mental health issues are rarely identified and poorly addressed and can have significant and lasting consequences.  

That there is social and cultural stigma around mental illness is well-known. Misinformation around mental health accompanied by limited resources to adequately treat it are commonplace. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated the existing mental health challenges among young people. A study conducted by the 10to19: Dasra Adolescents Collaborative (10to19) in June 2020 indicated that young people have reported increased rates of  depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide over the course of the pandemic. Of the 111 responding organizations, over 46% of organizations found that young people were experiencing fear and anxiety, and 41% of young boys and girls reported feeling afraid for their futures.  

More recently, a consultation conducted by the 10to19 Collaborative with young people gave voice to some of their most urgent mental health concerns. Over a year since the pandemic began, young people continue to experience various stressors, exposure to which has left them feeling disconnected from their peers and their regular lives. During the session, nearly all young people echoed that they currently feel despair and anxiety, whether about the pandemic or, in fact, about their future in the years to come. 

Most young Indians are still facing the impacts of long-term social isolation and experiencing their world digitally – or worse – are completely cut off from their education due to skewed and uneven access to the internet. Removed from otherwise nourishing environments, they are now left without livelihoods and access to critical resources, leaving them with unanswered questions of what the future will hold.  

Where do we go from here? 

The accounts shared by young Indians highlight the complex, multi-faceted emotions that they are experiencing; from fear due to the pandemic, to despair and anger when faced with unraveling its long-term consequences on their educations, livelihoods and family lives. However, despite the anxiety, loss and grief that have defined the past few months, they have also shared important stories of resilience and learning, highlighting the new skills they have built and the creative ways in which they’ve learnt to connect with one another and their families.  

We are still only just beginning to understand the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted a generation of young Indians. The pandemic has severely affected education and job prospects, leaving a vast number of young people with pressure to provide for their families. Long-term isolation is also likely to hamper young people’s social skills, leaving them unable to connect with peers or adults or to build adequate coping skills. Young women continue to bear the burden of care work, often without access to education and at increased risk of child or early marriage. The toll of these factors on young people’s mental well-beingis likely to be immense; iIt stands to reason, then, that we must shift our approach to mental health programming, addressing it intrinsically in everything that we do.  

Much like we address gender sensitization, it is imperative that we adopt a lens of mental wellbeing when designing and implementing programs, reminding ourselves that young people’s health cannot be isolated from every other facet of their lives. It is only then, that they will be able to not only seek gainful employment – but also sustain it. That they may make informed and active choices about their bodies and wellbeing, and that they can 

This lens needs to be holistic and integrated into our understanding of youth-centric programming, giving them patience and compassion as they navigate a difficult time globally and in their own lives. The responsibility of this shift lies on all of us – civil society, the government, funders, and their families – to unlearn the disinformation of the past and ensure that India’s adolescents have access to a better, brighter future.