Self harm, the politically-correct term for suicide, is the biggest cause of death of 13-17 year olds in India, followed by road injuries. At least 10 million 13-17 year olds in India have mental health problems that need active intervention, according to the National Mental Health Survey 2015-16, yet awareness of mental health issues among adolescents is abysmally low.
Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety first emerge in late childhood and early adolescence and often continue into adulthood, but 67% students are clueless about these common mental health problems, found a survey of 200 school counsellors, special educators, occupational therapists and psychologists across 130 private schools in Mumbai and Delhi NCR.
India has 3,827 registered psychiatrists and 898 clinical psychologists, with the majority working in hospital and clinical settings that students have no access to.
When teenagers do seek information, they turn to social media and search engines that more often than not offer unverified and incorrect content that keeps them from talking about their anxieties, concerns and fears with friends, family and school counsellors.
School mental health
Schools must offer a structured mental health curriculum, said mental health counselors and allied professionals working in schools, found the survey done by the Fortis School Mental Health Program. Even in a country where exam stress still drives students to suicide, little effort is being made to diagnose disorders such as anxiety and depression in early adolescence because of limited access to psychological and psychiatric services and substantial social stigma attached to mental health issues.
“These sensitive issues are rarely addressed in schools and within families, which leads to unaddressed health issues such as depression, anxiety, or other conditions leading to behavioural problems at home and school, increased participation in risk-taking behaviours, such as tobacco, alcohol and drug use, bullying, missing school, and underachievement in schools,” said the survey lead, Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioral sciences at Fortis Healthcare.
Even students who appear happy and are very active on social media are more stressed and lonely than they project to be. At least one in 10 of the 6,751 13-15 year olds surveyed in CBSE schools in India said they had no close friends, compared to 3% in Indonesia, according to World Health Organisation’s report on the Mental Health Status of Adolescents in South-East Asia 2017.
While social networking does not lead to isolation or depression, it helps mask it as it reduces empathetic conversations to superficial sharing and venting. The result is loneliness, depression and behavioural problems, which begin in adolescence but are increasingly diagnosed decades later, if at all.
“The failure to recognize and address mental health problems in children and adolescents is a serious public health issue given the multi-directional linkages between mental health conditions and other health, educational, social and development problems,” said Dr Nand Kumar, professor of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
“Spending time with family and friends provides emotional and social support, but with virtual interactions replacing interpersonal friendships, coping skills get compromised and teens find themselves isolated in both the real and virtual world and find it harder to express their need for emotional support,” said Parikh.
Mental health of India’s young
· 7.3% 13-17 year old have mental disorders
· 9.8 million teenagers need active interventions to treat their illnesses
· The most common disorders are depression (2.6%), followed anxiety (2.3%), intellectual disability (1.7%), autism spectrum disorders (1.6%), phobic anxiety (1.3%) and psychotic disorders (1.3%).
· Signs of depression: feeling low, social withdrawal, irritability, anger, low self worth, disturbed sleep, appetite changes, fatigue, listlessness, poor concentration, slipping grades.
Source: National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16
What students tell school counsellors
· 65% students don’t know about common mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.
· 60% used search engines and social media as the preferred source of information.
· 29% distressed students don’t talk about their concerns to anyone.
· 88% students don’t know how to respond to friends with psychological or emotional concerns.
· 91% cousellors and allied health professionals say mental health is not given adequate attention in schools.
· 96% want schools to have a mental health curriculum.