Walking The Tightrope – Teenage Mental Health

The World Health Organization (WHO), in 2017, said that one in every four teenagers, between the age of thirteen to fifteen years, suffer from depression. It also reported that India had the highest suicide rate among ten South East Asian countries. This worrisome statistic is only the tip of the iceberg, considering the number of cases that go undetected or undiagnosed. The lack of sensitivity towards, and understanding of mental health, the possible disorders and the resulting consequences have led to a sense of fear and insecurity, and misconceptions among parents, teenagers, teachers, and the society as a whole.
While truly attempting to understand the issue, it is necessary to first understand what mental health is. To begin with, mental health refers to one’s overall psychological and emotional wellbeing. It affects how one thinks, feels and acts, along with the behaviour and mood of the person. It need not refer to just the existence of mental disorders but may also concern the broad mental (psychological and emotional) state of the person, and whether or not disturbance is recurrent and perpetual. The concept of mental health, when understood, automatically directs one’s thoughts into what would entail disorderly mental health.
Mental illnesses are generally a result of complex interactions between one’s brain functioning, and the environment that one exists in. They are generally characterized by problems that people experience with their mind and their mood. Though they are not clearly understood in terms of their causes, their symptoms, on the other hand, are scientifically derived and well known. According to many studies, teenagers are the most susceptible to a certain class of mental health disorders that include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behaviour, and many more. While all of the symptoms may not be displayed at one shot during adolescence, their warning signs begin then, and eventually go on to develop into illnesses. These illnesses, more often than not, with treatment and medication can be cured or controlled.
Teenagers today, unlike a few decades back, are more prone to mental illnesses than ever before. The reasons for this span from, but are not limited to, the increase in the pressure to perform, the onset of technological addiction, and the shifted focus from social relationships to materialistic ones. Studies and surveys in the United States of America, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, have reported that eighty five percent of college students today fall above the average mental illness score, as compared to those in the 1930s and 1940s. This drastic increase, though unsurprising, is not unwarranted. In India, the major causes for poor mental health among teenagers reportedly includes academic pressure, peer pressure, unstable home and school environments, relationships, and finally social media.
Adolescents in India often face constant pressure from their family and community to pursue careers like engineering and medicine, irrespective of personal interests or competence for the fields. Coaching centres for entrance exams, which themselves induce the pressure of competing and succeeding, presenting grim circumstances otherwise, see a massive number of suicides every year. Kota, a hub for coaching centres for exams like JEE, NEET and AIEEE, in 2015, saw twelve student suicides within the first ten months of the year itself. People’s attitude with respect to career choices has also led the society to look down upon fields like fine arts, journalism, media and communications, literature, etc. A survey conducted in 2016 depicted that Indian communities showed considerable disregard towards the aforementioned occupations, leaving teenagers the choice to either conform or be rejects.
While the scenario has seen improvement over the years, there is still a long way to go before careers in India begin to mean more than the bandwagon of the pure and applied sciences. In addition to academic pressure, peer pressure and social conditions that teenagers live in are also leading causes of depression and anxiety, often arising out of acts like bullying, teasing and the ostracization of anyone who is ‘different’. Instability in home and school environments also disturb mental health severely. Teenagers living in homes plagued with constant quarrelling, and abusive conditions display severe symptoms, often unable to reach out for help. Victims of abuse, or witnesses of abuse walk the tightrope, afraid to seek aid.
Why is it harder on Indian teenagers to ask for help when they need it? The eye of this turbulent experience for teenagers is the unsupportive, stereotypical and stigmatic attitude of the society. The fear of being termed ‘crazy’, or ‘pagal’, and being secluded has led to suppression; moreover, when families find that their adolescents are displaying symptoms of mental illnesses, they often suppress it violently, and vehemently, afraid of the infamous, ‘log kya kahenge?’. This not only stands as a reflection of our insensitivity, but also the true cultural values that we seem to have forgotten. Secondly, the significantly low number of counselling centres and the lack of awareness of the same has made the situation even more dreary.
Teenagers form one of the most vulnerable demographics among the population, with immense potential. Their wellbeing not only depends on physical health and nutrition, but also mental health, exercise and wellbeing. While some measures have been taken, such as making the presence of a counsellor in every school/college and the introduction of counsellors in private and public hospitals and health centres, there is still a long way to go. Mental health awareness campaigns, online and offline discussion groups, support groups and clubs have made significant difference.
As someone once said, “What we achieve inwardly will change the outer reality,” mental health and wellbeing is as important as the physiological aspects. Growth is both internal and external, and the stakeholders are many for a victim- parents, teachers, counsellors, and most importantly, the sufferer itself. While we all walk the tight rope sometimes, it is important to remember to help those around us, encourage treatment, and dismiss the stigma.

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