We are learning as we go along about the effects of the pandemic on different demographic cohorts and will continue to do so long after it abates. But, the effects would not be so devastating if positive interventions are made now to mitigate the situation later. One which brooks no delay is that of the psychological impact this has had on students, both in school and college.
The story of a promising young girl from Telangana, a merit student at a prestigious Delhi college, who ended her life as her family could not afford a laptop for her to continue her studies, is heartbreaking. Weighed down by humiliation and hardship, she seemed unable to turn to anyone for help. This shows the extent of isolation young people are undergoing during this pandemic.
Social distancing and isolation have pushed the young from poor families even more to the margins than before. Without access to education or jobs, they are much more prone to depression. Counselling, especially for those without the means, is simply not available in the over-stretched public health system. The pandemic has taken up time, resources and personnel and the mental health of young people is not a priority; it never really was.
For young people, school or college is more than just a place to acquire an education. In schools, children can avail at least one meal in many places, get extra tuition free of cost, get away from the chores and responsibilities that their socio-economic environment foists on them. It inculcates a sense of physical and mental well-being that is destroyed by isolation and despair over the future.
For young college students, the campus offers social networks, exposes them to new ideas and avenues, creates aspirations far beyond their social milieu at home. When that is taken away so suddenly, the shock proves too much for so many.
Mental health issues manifest themselves in many ways, from insomnia to eating disorders to emotional swings to self-harming, all of which can be treated given the right interventions. But, in many homes, disturbing behaviour patterns in a young person are rarely seen as warning signs; rather they are dismissed as just acting up or, in young children, being extra difficult.
During this pandemic, it must also be remembered that young people have had to bear the loss of loved ones, often a parent, or had to witness illness personally. Even normal grieving processes have been curtailed in this pandemic, leading to further stress and strain on young people.
The government and non-governmental organisations need to make a greater effort to communicate with young people either online where it is available or through health workers. The ministry of health and family welfare has a national helpline to reach out to children on mental health issues due to the pandemic but not too many are aware of it.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to set right so many things wrong in our public health system. Mental health should be a major part of it and all efforts should be made to reach out to young people.
Sometimes, all that is required is just a few words of comfort, of hope that things will turn the corner. This can reduce needless mental suffering and save many promising young lives.
The views expressed are personal