What can we do for the mental health day?
A lot actually.
A few weeks ago, I got a call from the friend of a friend. She refused to give me her name. She said that she wanted some solutions to her problems. On talking with her, I was fairly certain that she suffering from depression. But she refused to accept this. When I asked her whether I could talk to anyone in her family, she told me that she is a studying in a city far away from her home, has a lot of issues with her family and friends and has no one she can confide in. She refused to accept my suggestion of consulting a counselor. “They just dole out advice” she countered. The psychiatrist. “They just prescribe medicines. I’ll get addicted”, she said. The sad part about this interaction was that she wanted me to give a quick fix solution to her problems. “Can you just give me something to sleep ? So that I can be fresh and work up my will power to get rid of this negativity?” she asked me.
Today is World Mental Health Day. The WHO theme for this year is “Young people and mental health in a changing world”.
The reason I remembered this interaction was because, this conversation is one among the many of such representative ones that I have with young people in my professional capacity.
When I go for talks and interactions to colleges and schools, as per the tradition, at the end of the presentation, the stage would be left open for questions. I can almost sense the air of tension and the uncomfortable silence in the audience. The teachers then nudge or intervene to get their favorite students to stand up and ask. This is followed by a teacher who asks some questions, so that the students would take the cue and start asking. And then finally, they announce that anyone wanting to ask something, could do so by writing it down on a chit of paper and sending it across. A palpable sigh of relief from the audience. And then, a steady stream of small chits arrive, as if by miracle, on the stage. Why, I wonder, is there so much hesitation to discuss mental health?
According to the WHO, almost half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I assure you, is not. (I picked the stat from the WHO website). Unfortunately, most cases go undetected and untreated.
In terms of the burden of the disease among adolescents, depression is the third leading cause.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds.
Harmful use of alcohol and illicit drugs among adolescents is a major issue in many countries and can lead to risky behavior such as unsafe sex or dangerous driving.
Unhealthy use of technology,addiction to mobile phones, social media, selfies and net surfing are very much visible for all to see.
Physical disorders related to high levels of stress like unexplained headaches, lack of sleep, decreased concentration, irregular menstrual cycles and fatigue are common in adolescents and young adults.
And I am not even talking about major mental illnesses like childhood psychosis, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders or learning difficulties yet.
Therefore, I think that it is high time that we stop behaving like the proverbial ostrich who buried his head in the sand. We need to accept the fact that, around us are adolescents and young adults with mental health issues, rather than blame their behavior on bad friends or poor teachers or the television.
By 2022, the average age of the population in India will be 29 and our country is set to become the world’s youngest country with 64% of its population falling under the working age bracket. The Prime minister keeps talking about making our country the human resource capital of the world. India has the potential to provide about 4 to 5 crores of its population as human resource to the rest of the world.
What use will this statistic be if a huge chunk of this population is unable to achieve their potential due to mental ill health?
Hence, we as a generation of adults have this responsibility of helping our youngsters recognize, accept and deal with mental illness. Let us do it by
- Educating ourselves about the challenges that our adolescents face. Let us stop parenting lazily. We need to understand the world around us and learn to unlearn many dogmas. Let us not scare our children about the perils of the world, but teach them how to protect themselves.
- Sensitizing teachers that academic underachievement is just a symptom, not an illness. Hence, find the reason behind the poor marks, rather than label the child useless.
- Make platforms in schools, for open discussion of issues which are important to adolescents. Eg. Puberty, relationships, right use of technology etc.
- As parents, insist on having qualified counselors in the school premises, whom ALL the students need to interact with on a regular basis.
- Keeping communication lines open at home and not be judgmental about our teenagers choices.
- Do not berate their distress or emotions. Instead, give a listening ear, offer to help and if nothing seems to work, seek help.
The responsibility of diagnosing and treating mental illness rests not only with the psychiatrist, but also with the community at large. If we make space for, rather than stigmatize mental illness, then we can work towards building a workforce of happy youngsters. Those who will not shy away from holding their head high when walking into a counselor’s/ psychiatrist’s office.