The world is passing through an unprecedented time. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing massive disruptive changes in many ways. The way we work, connect, interact and socialise with others is getting transformed. In India, not only are we facing economic turmoil of unprecedented magnitude and major showdown at our international borders but also struggling hard to control the spread of pandemic across the states. Also owing to the shutdown of schools, colleges and universities, there has been tremendous impact on the younger generation. However, this impact is invisible, hidden and still to be assessed. Over and above, we are not realising the undercurrent wave of mental health problems, which are taking the shape of another endemic.
India has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and they are the worst affected. They are in deep uncertainty and suffering from anxiety about their studies and career. They are also a part of a highly fragile and vulnerable age. Since they lack mental toughness, the young easily get distressed and overwhelmed. Statistics prove this: every hour one student commits suicide in India, with about 28 such suicides reported every day, according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Just a month prior to March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 had just begun in India, the Lancet, a well-regarded medical Journal, published a report relating to mental disorders across the states in India, titled, “The Global Burden of Disease Study 1990-2017”. The study claimed that nearly 197 million Indians were suffering from mental disorders, including 45.7 million reported to have depressive disorders, and 44.9 million were suffering with anxiety disorders.
These numbers are huge, more than the largest European country, Russia, whose population is only about 146 million. Now imagine more than half of these cases belong to generations below the age of 25 years! This is a mind-blowing problem for the country.
It’s a matter of great concern that more than 50% of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24, according to American Psychiatric Association. Experts are anticipating a surge in cases relating to Internet and mobile addiction, depression, anxiety and suicides. All the more, the social isolation, fear, uncertainty, loss of job in the family and economic devastation are making the things worse.
Even prior to the pandemic outbreak, the cases of mental illnesses were rising steadily. In India, we have another problem of not discussing such issues in the family and seeking counselling and therapy. That’s why, a large percent of mental health related cases go unnoticed and unaccounted in India. This further aggravates the problem.
The World Economic Forum estimated that direct and indirect costs of mental health amounts to over 4% of global GDP, more than the cost of cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease combined. This could cost the global economy up to many trillion dollars if this mega-problem is not addressed in time.
Unlike developed nations, researchers and policy makers in India are clueless on the spread of the problem and cost to the nation. No major study has been conducted in India to estimate the impact of pandemic on mental health.
Since performance in colleges and universities determine their future, students are invariably stressed. Parents’ expectations, workload of studies and hyper-competitive environment contribute to creating severe distress among the majority of the students.
However, schools and colleges are the places where students are also de-stressed. These learning places are the buzzing hubs where students meet and interact with each other. With so many extra-curriculum activities to enjoy there, these are the unique places where young minds are nurtured and grown. Now with pandemic around, the students are imprisoned in their homes. They desperately miss their place of education. This is a major reason why the impact is more severe on their mental well-being.
The UN estimates that the pandemic has affected more than one billion students worldwide. As of mid-July, schools were closed in some 160 countries, affecting more than 1 billion students, while at least 40 million children have missed out on pre-school.
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres has launched a UN “Save our Future” campaign. Guterres warned that the world faces a “generational catastrophe” because of school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic and said that getting students safely back to the classroom must be “a top priority”.
Once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control, getting students back into schools and learning institutions as safely as possible must be a top priority,” Guterres said. “Consultation with parents, carers, teachers and young people is fundamental.”
Thanks to digital technology, lecture halls or classrooms in campuses have been replaced by online classes. Since students were already tech-savvy, they adapted quickly to the ‘new normal’ and now world over students are kept busy with online tasks. However, the main problem is their undivided attention to online classes.
As no one is teaching, watching and interacting with them, in person, seeking undivided attention of students is a big challenge. In the age of digital distraction, attention is, in any case, a scarce commodity.
Alarming numbers of users, especially among the younger generation, are excessively using social media. When we use it, there is a direct neurological effect on our mind. Some even say that social media is like the world’s largest slot machine.
What a temptation and range of choices we have for those videos and text on these platforms! We are getting overburdened with material which is very difficult to resist. Whatever spare time we earlier had is now being devoted to social media, watching and sharing information in different forms. There are virtually unlimited opportunities for pleasurable content from social media, as well as from the Internet like gaming, videos, movies, porn etc. The younger generation gets tempted to use the internet more often.
Indians spend nearly 4.3 hours on mobiles in a day. It was 3.5 hours last year. Students spend from 4 to 7 hours a day on the phone. Some even use mobile for more than 10 hours in a day. According to a survey, millennials (those who were born between 1980 and 1994) check their phones even more often: more than 150 times per day. Digital obsession is having a wide impact on youngsters’ studies, health, career, and relationships.
That so many students are mentally and physically occupied with social media obviously takes a toll on their studies, which in turn impacts their career. And as attention to studies decreases, work pressure from parents and teachers increases, and this leads to greater mental stress.
Management is key
Under the circumstances, how can these students be able to focus on their goals and aspirations? It’s a great dilemma that digital technology is helping as well as disrupting the lives of young people. It’s a double-edged weapon, depending upon how we use it.
There are plenty of things students can do, not only to make them productively busy but also improve their ability to focus and concentrate on their studies. This will, in turn, make them mentally fit and healthy. Besides getting adequate sleep, eating healthy food and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol, the younger generation should focus on managing stress.
Stress is often unavoidable, but knowing what triggers this and knowing how to cope with it is key in maintaining good mental health. Try to manage responsibilities and worries by making a list or a schedule of when we can resolve each issue.
While activity and exercise are essential in maintaining good mental health, it is important to connect with others and be sociable. Having friends is important not just for our self-esteem, but also for providing support when we are not feeling too great. Do things for others -- helping others isn't just good for the people we are helping; it's good for us too.
(The author is a retired IAS, Member UP, RERA and author. Views are personal.)
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