As India continues to be impacted by the challenges caused by the extended Covid-19 pandemic, its unprecedented impact on the mental health of the young individuals (15 to 29 years), who constitute nearly 27.5 per cent of our population must be addressed. The 2021 State of the World’s Children Report, notes that in India, 1 in 7 youth between 15 to 24 years reported feeling depressed during the pandemic.
According to National Crime Records Bureau, one-third of all suicides in the country in 2020 were among the youth. Contributing factors include the disruption caused to their lives due to the loss of in-person education, routine and social opportunities which have increased stress, depression, and internalisation of disorders. The pandemic has also severely affected their learning abilities, behaviour and social skills.
A UNICEF report (2021) found that in India, only 60 per cent of students in schools were able to access remote-learning opportunities, while 80 per cent of students were learning significantly less through digital education than in physical classes. Transition to online mode has affected their learning and coping abilities, heightened pressure and mood disturbances, impacting their sleep and concentration. This can further lead to a cycle that worsens their neurodevelopment, future performance and emotional well-being. The impact may also be on their problem-solving and interpersonal skills, primarily learnt and reinforced at school and college, through engagement in sports and recreational activities.
Considering that the average family size in India is 4.9 persons, the familial conflict caused or enhanced due to members being forced to spend time in closed spaces during the lockdown, and mobility restrictions could contribute to their distress. The mental health of the disadvantaged youth who have no or limited access to technology, parental support, and are dependent on their social and protective networks for development and encouragement, is one of the worst affected. Similarly, youth at the intersection of caste, gender, or disability, those with early-life stress such as orphans, victims of abuse or neglect, and those who have lost family in the pandemic, are also potentially at the risk of developing severe psychological problems.
Young girls and women are at an additional disadvantage. According to a UN Women report, there were more girls dropping out of school than boys in the pandemic and 65 per cent of parents in India were reluctant to continue the education of girls in order to save costs. This can lead to an entire generation of girls being unable to complete schooling, resulting in depression, lack of self-esteem, and other negative repercussions on their mental health. Their emotional turmoil is compounded by trauma caused by the increase in domestic violence 7 and enhanced household responsibilities that give them little time to recuperate. An increase in unintended pregnancies and communicable disease-related adolescent mortality due to insufficient access to general healthcare services, especially for sexual and reproductive health can also lead to more anxiety.
The need for strengthening our response to the emotional requirements of the youth, and making provisions for basic mental health services for them is, thus, urgent. This should be done by centre-staging youth to the forefront on all discussions about their mental health, using an intergenerational, gender lens to identify stressors specific to them and build supportive mechanisms to help them cope and flourish.
As only 41 per cent of young Indians between the ages of 15 to 24 years believe in access to support for mental health, it is also critical to counter the associated misinformation and stigma. It is important for educational institutions to promote mental health literacy and safe outreach. As schools reopen, the number of counsellors should be increased- to provide in-person support that was lacking earlier. Teachers can be supported to be key agents, who can identify those at risk, and provide supportive counselling and referral where needed. Frontline community workers such as ASHAs can do the same at the community level. Self-help resources that include literature on mental morbidities,
tools to manage it and information on helplines, to contact can also be distributed.
Expanding youth-focused mental health infrastructure and delivery of affordable services which can develop help-seeking behaviour is also important. This would include capacity-building of wellness and primary health centres, mental health components of Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram and college health programs. Telemedicine and digital technologies like WhatsApp groups and chatbots can be leveraged, given the access and acceptability of these platforms by the youth, to support interventions. Insights from innovative programs which are focused on this demographic such as Sangath’s Its Ok to Talk, PRIDE, Young Lives Matter and Yuva Mann initiatives, can help in
reaching the youth.
Recognising the needs and rights of the youth to receive mental health care is the need of the hour. If left unaddressed, the economic cost to the country could be an estimated 78 crore till 2030 due to the loss of opportunities. The personal cost could be the youth turning to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, risk-taking impulsive behaviour, and suicide. It can also impact their ability to reach their full potential, physical health and have long-term consequences that last well into their adulthood.
(Dr Chauhan is Emeritus Professor, ICGEB and Founder ETI; Dr Bhan is Global Health Researcher and Lead, Sangath (Bhopal Hub)