Decoding depression: Educators must focus on mental health of students amid Covid-19

budget 2022 priorities
Budget 2022 focus on transportation and communication infrastructure is justified, but it failed to enhance school education infrastructure and to step up skilling efforts.

By Vanisree Ramanathan

Covid-19 has affected our lives in many ways, some of them very unpleasant and painful. Students are the most affected section of our society as they were cut off from classrooms, campuses and classmates overnight, depriving them of their strength and spirit. At home, they stare at uncertain days ahead despite various efforts by the authorities to ensure that their education is unaffected despite all constraints. In fact, young minds are yet to adapt to the unexpected changes brought into their lives. The transition from classroom study and the campus life to online platforms has adversely affected their mental health. It has created anomie due to the uncertainties that have taken a toll on students’ mental and physical health.

Even before Covid-19 pandemic, Kerala society had created new norms that alienated the individual from social groups and the self. This was due to the highly competitive nature of the society and high aspirations of life. It affected the reflexivity of many students, resulting in the loss of habitual and reflexive ways of attaching meaning to life events. In the new scenario, students must cope with an array of challenges every day that are otherwise considered unnecessary and unhealthy, according to recent studies.

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Mental health of students amid Covid outbreak

Epidemiologically, depression is a major cause of human suffering and disability. Depression has been the most common mental disorder among students in Kerala during the lockdown period. It has been found that more than 60% of college students had reported some form of depression, 22% of students had thought of ending their lives and 5% made suicide attempts. The fact that the students who have committed suicide did not have any form of serious psychological problems calling for immediate attention and intervention by the state.

The causes of depression among students during the time are varied, but the complete absence of a school/college environment is found to be the main reason for the psychological complications. At a single stroke, students were totally alienated from friends, teachers and school/college mates, and confined to indoors. Since they are still children, they have no business to venture out. They are constantly warned and rarely entertained anywhere. Lack of physical activity, conflicts and unhealthy family environment, digital addiction, sleep disturbance and lack of clarity about the future, uncertainty about examinations and its impact on grades and future prospects are the other concerns.

Economic crisis, loss of jobs, high inflation and deteriorating healthcare have created an atmosphere of gloom around young people who aspired for a bright future. As a result, they seem to have succumbed to anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment and even prolonged silence. Besides, death of family members due to Covid-19 and reports of people dying in the streets, dead bodies remaining unattended and cremation grounds being swarmed with Covid victims in various parts of the country have badly affected their minds. Under the changed circumstances, some have resorted to drug abuse, liquor consumption, tobacco use and video games using smartphones, despite repeated warnings from parents and psychologists.

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Uncertain future, economic crisis lead to anxiety

The students are tired of state regulations, health guidelines and advice from elders since the Covid-19 outbreak. Already, they have been stretched to the extremes because of tough competition in education and high expectations that deprive them of a healthy social relationship. The changing social structure due to the forces of the market economy, urbanisation and globalisation that created new values, lifestyle and expectations affected the family equilibrium.

Kerala has been a typical example of various developmental models in the country, but it has also witnessed regressive trends in dealing with mental health of youth, which is reflected in high rates of suicides, excessive liquor consumption, increasing drug abuse, growing violence against women and children and disruption of family life. Drug abuse can trigger or intensify the feelings of loneliness, sadness and hopelessness often associated with depression.

In the Covid-disrupted life, increasing domestic violence, family discords and violence are affecting the children directly. In reality, those who are expected to protect them are becoming abusers. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse is a crucial factor in triggering mental illness. More than 1600 cases of violence against children at home have been reported from January to May 2021 in the state, including rape and murders, which reflect the disorder in the society.

Though Kerala has a rich tradition of social life, community participation and neighbourhood support, as far as youth are concerned, there is a clear sign of deteriorating mental health. High level competition in educational as well as professional fields, nuclear families, high expectations, and expensive lifestyle contribute to the undermining of mental conditions.

In the new economic order, family often fails to promote the health of its children, the way forward is community-based health promotion, mental health awareness and support for the prevention of psychological disorder as well as detection and proper treatment with management of the stigma. The emotions of irritability, sensitivity, hopelessness, guilt, anger, frustration, despair, lack of desire or enthusiasm are evident in close circles. Having supportive relationships fosters the ability to regulate emotions which in turn fosters a culture of seeking assistance, aiding resilience.

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Options before the government

The state government can initiate the programme ‘Psychological well-being of children in the context of disasters and pandemic” in partnership with all stakeholders. In the current state of affairs connecting with the students and parents through online sessions, mainstream and social media via audio-video clips and positive messages is the way to protect them from anxiety and depression. It would be desirable to connect with the efforts of civil society organisations and neighbourhood groups already working in this field. Creating awareness and counselling for parents, families and teachers are also essential along with individual interventions.

New technologies not insulated from negative impacts affect the quality of life of the children. Overuse of internet and electronic gadgets without any physical and social activities is harmful for the psychological wellbeing of children. Research shows that violence in video games can have a long-term/short-term impact on children’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Nomophobia, psychological dependence on mobile devices whereby users exhibit symptoms the same as drug addiction, is widely reported in Kerala by practitioners. In the cyber world, cyber bullying and increasing cybercrimes are impairing the young minds.

Depression has been a public health issue these days as youngsters fall prey to it when they are faced with the unique challenges of life. However, depression in any form can be assessed, diagnosed and effectively treated with medication and psychotherapy with the support of family and peers. The family should observe the child’s behavioural change and intervene with the support of practitioners by an approach suited to the child. Left untreated, it can be a serious mental disorder leading to suicide.

Need to add mental health in curriculum

Along with community education, formal education system must incorporate the aspects of psychological development of the child into the curriculum from an early age. In regular teaching sessions, the students must be trained what to think. Along with teaching them how to be successful, we must teach them how to face failures and challenges of life too.

It is important to develop at least one skill in all students outside the curriculum that prevents them from addictions. There should be a multi-pronged approach to address the very mental condition of students affected by external factors. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the right to health is the basic right of students along with the right to education.

Mental health in curriculum is non-negotiable and it is the right time to act. Inclusion of mental health in curriculum and social wellbeing of students in the educational planning has been deliberated from 2005. Let us hope that NEP 2020 with its goal of holistic education is in this direction. POSCO Act of 2012, 2016, Juvenile Justice Act of 2016, with model guidelines, and Rights of Persons with Disability Act of 2016 suggest the support system for making mental health as a criterion for holistic development of children.

Reaching out to students must involve using creative mediums such as music, poetry, drama, and youth parliaments on mental health through online media. Child friendly schools with the shift in focus from quality learning environment to quality outcomes, from learning to experiencing, from answering to questioning and from observing to participating, is the best model that enables students to live with identity, live with emotionality and to live with peers.

Enhancing psycho-social climate requires a ban on physical punishment, violence and bullying, or any form of discrimination in school. Such atmosphere helps prevent students from dropping out. Mental health programmes must incorporate teacher capacity building as well as identification of emotion, behaviour and learning problems. It must also factor in parents’ education and skill deficiencies. Empowering stakeholders and building community partnerships are crucial to integrate programmes, practitioners, and policies. Positive mental health can only be achieved through caring and accepting children.

(Dr Vanisree Ramanathan is from Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, Cochin. The views expressed in this article are personal).