Mental health and children: It's time to face the NextGen challenge
Mental health woes of India's young have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The time is come for a collaborative effort to help them through this crisis.
As the world emerges from the shadows of the Covid-19 pandemic with attempts being made to limp back to “normal life”, we find ourselves being gripped by another pandemic — that is silently but steadily affecting us. The impact of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of populations is gaining attention worldwide. Several experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have been expressing concerns that this is a global crisis to be reckoned with.
The impact on young people is of specific concern. Uncertainties of the future, anxieties about re-engaging with school, and the fragile financial condition of households are having an unprecedented impact on their emotional well-being and mental health.
In India, several studies and surveys are attempting to capture the impact of this growing mental health crisis on children, but the most comprehensive data is presented by a recent national study conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) that documents the nature and extent of the struggles of adolescents in school and their personal lives. The study was quite extensive and covered a total of 379,013 students between January to March 2022 from all states and Union Territories of the country.
Several of the findings are alarming: The most often experienced emotions reported by students 2-3 times a week are tiredness and low energy (46%), tearful (33%), and loneliness (26%). Only 55% of the respondents expressed being satisfied with their body image — a disturbing statistic as dissatisfaction with body image can have harmful emotional, psychological, and physiological effects; 28.4% of the respondents were hesitant to ask questions when having difficulties in understanding — indicating a lack of confidence in oneself. This further dips as students enter late adolescence.
Of course, these children have spent the past two years in the grip of a pandemic that has played havoc with lives across the globe. Many lost family members and experienced a deep sense of uncertainty as they led sequestered lives in their homes. Some saw violence and others saw parents getting separated. This impacted their mental health like never before. And now that schools have opened, these students are in a situation where they need to leave the fears of the past behind, feel emotionally and socially adept to cope with the rigours of student life, manage healthy relationships with friends and teachers, and reimagine their life goals and aspirations. For many of them, this is not a problem, but data from this study shows that there is a sizable number of adolescents for whom this is a challenge.
While the pandemic has made us realise the need to focus on mental health, stigma and misconceptions around mental health continue to plague society. Too often, the focus is on extreme mental illness. Coping with everyday challenges, uncertainties, and struggles, while recognised, is not adequately addressed in existing programmes. How can we tackle the problem before it becomes a wider debilitating phenomenon?
The only way to respond is to recognise that mental health is everybody’s issue, and that prevention and response must go hand in hand. Although conversations about mental health often focus on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, it is just as important to focus on building and promoting positive mental health and well-being. As mentioned in a recent annual review of clinical psychology, in addition to “fixing what's wrong” we can “build what's strong”.
This requires immediate and urgent efforts to promote mental well-being in our schools and higher education institutes, while making services accessible to people who suffer from mental illness. The foundational core of our nextGen must be strengthened — we must support them to become resilient, ie, learn the skills to bounce back from adversity and thrive.
NCERT has aptly recommended schools to be the core institution that strengthens holistic development, as envisaged under the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. This requires promoting the mental and emotional well-being of students through its incorporation into all aspects of education and educational training. The NEP 2020 emphasises an ecosystem approach, with a need to sensitize all stakeholders and provide students skills such as “communication, cooperation, teamwork and resilience”.
Some efforts have begun in this direction. For instance, The Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) programme tries to incorporate some promotive mental health components within the larger program for adolescents, and several civil society organisations have also designed social-emotional learning programs. However, what we require is more concentrated, deeper, and comprehensive approaches that focus specifically on building emotional resilience, and a deep dive into specific skills to cope with everyday challenges.
CorStone’s resilience programme is one such programme. This evidence-based programme has a proven methodology where trained teachers become facilitators, conducting activity-based programmes with students in small groups, using a peer support model. A blend of socio-emotional skills as well as restorative practices is used, which helps students recognise and apply their inner strengths and assets. They then learn to support each other in managing difficult emotions, problem-solving, as well as recognising and using their strengths. Experiencing and expressing gratitude, emotional regulation, and actively using strengths to face adverse situations are highlights of the programme.
The success of this promotive mental health approach of resilience building has led to a long-term collaboration with the Bihar Education Project Council to work on how the program can be scaled up in schools in Bihar.
We need to feature such promotive mental health programmes in schools, institutes, and communities. Building awareness, helping people recognise their strengths and resources, and supporting them to collectively support one another to face crises will go a long way in building preparedness and togetherness in communities. Investing in well-being is the need of the hour.
One of the most memorable slogans in India for a mass inoculation campaign was Do Boond Zindagi Ki (Two drops of Life), referring to Pulse Polio drops. It was immortalized by Amitabh Bachchan himself. This campaign saw policymakers, practitioners, institutions, and civil society come together with a commitment rarely seen, until the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
On October 10, which is observed as World Mental Health Day, when the call is to “make mental health and well-being for all a global priority”, let's begin doing just that. Let us commit together to an inoculation of a different kind: Building the resilience, the inner-strength and confidence of our GenNext. Let's make well-being a national priority, so that a resilient future generation is prepared to tackle any adversity and thrive.
Gracy Andrew is special adviser and Nandita Bhatla is director-programs for CorStone India Foundation — an internationally-recognised non-profit organisation that develops and provides resilience training programmes to improve well-being for youth in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), focusing on adolescent girls as critical change-agents in their communities
The views expressed are personal