A demanding Chandigarh is chipping away at childhood
Traumatised: A series of studies have found that an increasing number of adolescents in Chandigarh are feeling lonely, depressed, and suicidal.punjab Updated: Oct 11, 2017 11:55 IST
A day after his suicide on September 23, family members of Karan Thakur, 16, from Panchkula found a notebook in which he had written about feeling alone and unloved. He wrote: ‘I don’t deserve to live’, ‘No one cares for me’, No one loves me’, ‘They just use me’, ‘I should just die’.
His grieving father told reporters, “We had no idea that he was going through so much turmoil.”
Karan’s death has flagged the rising incidence of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicidal tendencies, among adolescents in the tricity.
On October 6, 12 days after Karan’s death, Manju, 15, committed suicide by hanging from a ceiling fan in her house in Manimajra. Her father, who runs a tea stall, said his daughter, a Class 8 student, ended her life because she was weak in academics.
How serious is the issue?
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2014, as many as 11 children aged between 14 and 19 years committed suicide in Chandigarh. The next year saw an increase of 91% in such cases and 21 children in this age group killed themselves.
6% of schoolchildren in Chandigarh have mental health problems that start interfering in the child’s daily life.
In 2016, the department of lifelong learning and extension, Panjab University, surveyed 400 students (200 boys and girls each) from Classes 9 to 12 in different government senior secondary schools in Chandigarh, and found that more than half of them (62%) suffered from loneliness. Students of Classes 11 and 12 were found to be lonelier (77.5%) than those in Classes 9 and 10 (46.5%) in the study that was published in the International Journal of Applied Research.
Dr Savita Malhotra, a specialist in adolescent psychiatry at Fortis hospital, Mohali, says around 6% of schoolchildren in Chandigarh have mental health problems that start interfering in the child’s daily life.
In 2015, psychiatrists from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, analysed the records of 101 patients from 2000-2012, aged 19 years and below, who were brought to the hospital after they attempted suicide (intentional self-harm).
The study, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, found that suicidal tendency among adolescents in Chandigarh was more prevalent in females (60.4%) and that most of the patients who attempted self-harm (among the cases analysed) were between 16 and 18 years of age.
The study revealed that every second patient was facing inter-personal relationship issues like altercation with parents or siblings over his demands not being met. Many patients inflicted intentional self-harm due to stress of failure in examinations. Other reasons included broken love affairs.
Another study by PGIMER doctors in 2015 (published in the Indian Journal of Public Health Research and Development) also found an “alarmingly high” suicidal tendencies among adolescents in Chandigarh with 14% of the 102 school children surveyed, having suicidal tendencies.
After a 2009 study on adolescents, doctors at Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), Sector 32, Chandigarh, concluded that students with academic problems and unsupportive environment at home, perceived life as a burden and had higher rates of suicidal thoughts. The study was conducted on as many as 2402 students of Classes 7 to 12 from government and private schools in the city.
Blame the hormones
But why are adolescents so vulnerable to mental health issues? Experts reason that these problems become more prevalent during adolescence because it is a phase when the child experiences rapid hormonal, physical and psychological changes.
Adolescence is also a phase when body-image concerns become very heightened.
The sense of identity starts developing and children begin to assert it actively. “During adolescence, children want to become more independent in taking decisions. When their decisions and choices conflict with social norms, tensions occur,” says Dr Savita Malhotra, a specialist in adolescent psychiatry at Fortis hospital, Mohali.
She adds that children also become more conscious about their appearance, their likes and dislikes, and start comparing themselves and their family with others.
A case study
As a Class 5 student, Kalpana Mehra (name changed), always wanted to be in the limelight at her school no matter what. She wasn’t great at academics and teachers would find her dresses “improper”. Once when a teacher asked her about her behaviour, she said, “All I want is to get famous and I can go to any extent for this.”
Her teachers say she would post “revealing” photographs of herself on the social media to gain attention. Often, her friends misguided her by encouraging her to carry on, only to bully and mock at her later. She soon became lonely and disturbed, and was referred to the school’s counsellor.
Aditi Ahluwalia, who counselled Kalpana, says, “The child had issues with self-perception and identity formation. If not addressed in time, this can become catastrophic for anyone.”
She says the first hurdle was to build a rapport with her. Once she gained her confidence, Ahluwalia found that Kalpana liked writing poems and that they had “obscene” content in it. “I realised that Kalpana has a good vocabulary and asked her to write poems for special occasions at school. It was important to channelise her energy,” says the counsellor, adding that the aim was to make her understand that there are better ways to get recognition.
The school made her a member of the students’ council (despite it being against norms). From time to time, she would also be given responsibilities. “All this helped, and the child improved,” says Ahluwalia. Today Kalpana is an undergraduate student at a leading college in the city. Her experience is just one of the many manifestations of mental health problems faced by adolescents.
Adolescence is also a phase when body-image concerns become very heightened, says Dr Damanjit Sandhu, president of Association of Mental Health Counsellors. “Kids who don’t grow tall like others or girls who don’t develop the secondary sexual character like others, become negatively conscious.”
Difficulty in coming to terms with sexual development and sexual identity also affects some children. In absence of reliable sex-education in our society, some of them may find it difficult to understand their sexual urges and feel stressed.
“When questions on sexuality and sexual development are not answered or children are wrongly informed on the subject, it causes anxiety, fear, guilt, and depression,” says Dr Malhotra. “The child begins to think that these urges are wrong because there is no one to talk to them on these issues.”
This was borne out in a 2015 study by PGIMER, Chandigarh. The doctors found that only 12% adolescents in the city could discuss issues related to sex and reproductive health with their family members.
Rise in parent-child conflict is another stressor during adolescence. Children tend to spar with parents over more control in decision making.
Adolescents also have to contend with peer pressure. “For them, it is very important to be accepted,” says Khushwant Singh, a father and an author based in Chandigarh. He says at times, this acceptance can come through success in sports or academics, by wearing and flaunting brands, and even by the popularity they can garner on the social media. Adolescents these days have to cope with social media, which is often abused by bullies. “It’s easy to be violent and gang up against someone behind the screen. This can be traumatising for a child,” says Khushwant.
Sharing her experience of interacting with students in Chandigarh, Shangrila Dubey, a student counsellor, says adolescents often face the challenge of confronting their real self vis-à-vis their imagined self.
“At times, children set towering targets for themselves. When they are unable to meet them, they feel dejected, lonely and stressed.”
Challenges of urban space
Many experts feel these problems are engendered by the cold urban space that the three built-from-the-scratch cities provide to their children. As Harjinder Kaur, chairperson of Chandigarh Commission for Protection of Child Rights (CCPCR), put it, “There is intense competition that puts an increasing pressure on children. Thanks to unitary families, there is an emotional gap between generations, leading to loneliness among children.”
Chandigarh, say sociologists, is an intensely competitive city with high-pressure parenting. Here parents are judged by the sector they live in, the school in which their children study, the brands they wear, and the cars they drive. This competition percolates down to the children, who can no longer just be themselves.
Dr Prabha Vig, who led the PU study, admits that loneliness and depression are the product of psychosocial factors.
Commenting on the effect of this power play on mental health, Neelam Man Singh, a well-known thespian and long-term Chandigarhian, says though people were concerned about social status even in the past, the difference today is that these concern is now aggressively defining individuals, which wasn’t the case earlier. “Today, there is a notion that if you buy certain things, you become part of a certain social group.” Children also get sucked into this competition.
Speaking about the pressures of growing up in Chandigarh vis-à-vis a rural town, Hoshiarpur-born author Khushwant Singh, who raised a son in Chandigarh, says the challenges of growing up here are quite different from those in a smaller city. “A child here has many more opportunities than a child growing up in any other part of Punjab.
The competition thus is obviously tougher. The pressure to excel in academics, to be known and be seen in the right places is much more here as compared to a small town,” he says.
This chips away at the carefree character of childhood, and leads to early pressure that many children find hard to negotiate.
(Part I of the two-part series |Next: Solutions)