The Issue of Mental Health
It is undeniable that the Indian mental health landscape is ill-suited for supporting those in need of aid. Mental health has been a topic for open discussion in India only in recent years, and as we are today, we’re inadequately equipped for helping those affected by mental illnesses. One needs only to look at the number of people who have mental illnesses to dispel the belief that it isn’t a relevant issue, or that it doesn’t affect you (or those you care about) personally.
These numbers make it clear that there is a massive unaddressed need within the Indian population. In a population of 1.3 billion, 150 million people across India require mental healthcare intervention. It must be very telling then, that the issue of mental health doesn’t get better when you look at children- who are universally seen as a symbol of innocence. According to the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH), 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable emotional, behavioral, or mental health disorder, while 1 in 10 young people have a more severe mental health challenge that could impair their functioning at home, school, or the community. Even if some of us are more vulnerable than others, everyone faces challenges in life that could impact their mental health.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, that this is an issue worth caring about, we could look at the suicide rate in India (15.7/100,000), which, in 2015 was higher than the global average of 10.6 per 100,000 people.
There are a few ways in which a lack of education on the subject of mental health only serves to worsen this problem.
One of the biggest effects of a lack of education related to mental health is the perpetuation (however unintended) of stigma. Stigma, stereotyping, and discrimination are a natural result of ignorance and the spread of misinformation.
In 2018, the Live Love Laugh Foundation commissioned a national survey report, spanning 8 cities and over 3000 people to help understand the perception of mental health in India.
One of the results conveyed the following about the respondents’ attitudes towards mental health issues.
These attitudes originate from inaccurate beliefs about the nature of mental health. They are very likely the reason for the stigma surrounding these problems and can have very real, and harmful repercussions for those suffering from mental health issues.
Primarily, this prevents those affected from seeking professional help. This could be due to a fear of being labeled or judged, or perhaps a result of the adopted belief system that there is shame in having to ask for help. Or that mental illness isn’t a “real illness” and can be overcome if only they were stronger (A little disclaimer here, mental illness is absolutely not a sign of personal weakness, and can be improved with professional help).
One of the few effects this aversion to medical treatment might have is a person self-diagnosing / self-treating based on online sources that may or may not be trustworthy. It might also drive people to more harmful options such as the adoption of unhealthy coping mechanisms or engagement in self-destructive behavior, including but not limited to self invalidation, neglect of one’s basic needs, self-isolation, substance abuse, etc. which might all have debilitating effects on the person.
This is where the education system can help. If we are to bring about a cultural shift in attitudes about mental health, the best way to do so would be to start with the young. Having the necessary education imparted to them is essential to building understanding, open-mindedness, and empathy while simultaneously getting rid of the stigma and erroneous beliefs. School environments which foster open, inclusive discussions about the identification and addressing of mental health issues will be incredibly beneficial for students to feel comfortable talking about and asking for support with the things they’re struggling with. Encouraging dialogue about mental health will also increase people’s understanding of the prevention of negative coping mechanisms such as self-harm or the development of eating disorders.
The way the Education system can achieve this is by spreading awareness.
Another one of the results from the survey conducted by the TLLLF foundation showed that while 87% of the survey respondents showed some amount of mental health awareness, 71% of them used terms associated with stigma.
(chart on next page, Fig. 3)
While stigma and awareness are separate issues, they’re interlinked. The spread of awareness can greatly combat stigma. However, awareness also plays an important role by increasing the likelihood of the early recognition of mental illnesses, enabling easier access to treatment, and encouraging the institutional adoption of preventive measures. It can lead to improvements in research, policy, and the improvement of services. The mental health care delivery system can only do so much when the lack of knowledge about mental illness poses such a huge challenge. Only when people are aware of the problem can they step up to solve it.
When we talk about awareness, it is important to also talk about the concept of ‘health literacy', which can be defined as the “ability to access, understand, and use the information to promote and maintain good health.”
Mental health literacy, in this context, encompasses the following topics:
Recognition of mental illnesses
Causes of mental illnesses
Methods of self-help
Facilitation of professional intervention
Navigating the information highway.
There have been a few studies that measured mental health literacy in the Indian context. One such study found mental health literacy among adolescents to be very low, i.e. depression was identified by 29.04% and schizophrenia/psychosis was recognized only by 1.31% of respondents
This can be curbed by increasing mental health literacy in students, by schools incorporating these topics into the academic curriculum, and making students more knowledgeable about their own mental health and that of others around them. Attitudes that hinder recognition and appropriate help-seeking can be counteracted by information that is already readily available in the public domain, and schools can help kids access that information.
The Role of the Education System
Most debilitating and chronic mental illnesses have their origin before 24 years of age. Seeing as these mental health issues often begin and develop during the school years, it makes sense for mental health education to also take place during this time. Schools happen to be one of the most influential things in a student’s life. Not only do people spend a lot of time in this environment, but it is also where friendships begin, and where teens develop their sense of self-worth and identity, all while confronting academic stress and societal expectations.
This is exactly why it should also be the place where children start to learn that their behavior towards others has consequences (especially in terms of it affecting their mental wellbeing). Many students experience conflicts, bullying, and social exclusion at school, which can be detrimental to their mental health. Promoting a safe, inclusive environment is a necessity.
It becomes extremely clear, then, the importance of helping students have a better understanding of their own mental health as well as learning about ways to combat stress, self-worth issues, etc. throughout these years.
Aside from de-stigmatization, removing discrimination and increasing awareness, education on mental health can also sensitize students to others who may be in distress, as well as help enable the early detection of mental illnesses and simple interventions. These strategies are important for two reasons; First- they work. They can help improve resilience to mental illness and help minimize obstructions to daily functioning. Second- undiagnosed, untreated, or inadequately treated mental health conditions will only worsen with time and hinder their growth, and development.
The goal of adding mental health education to the curriculum should also encompass making teachers more aware. Though certainly not a prerequisite for teaching, it will certainly help teachers identify students in need of help and teach them in a way that proves most effective for them. People with disorders that hinder learning, such as ADHD, dyslexia, etc. will benefit greatly from their teachers being able to understand their situations and being equipped to guide them through it.
Why is it that the most important factor in both our personal happiness as well as academic success - mental wellbeing - is being given such little importance in our lives? Why is it that we’re content to ignore it until it becomes a debilitating issue? School, where most of our development and growth takes place, is a great place to actively combat the neglect of mental health that is so prevalent in society today. Educators have a responsibility to ensure that misinformation and ignorance don’t harm their students. Teaching students about mental health issues can help foster a better understanding of themselves and the people around them. It’s about time we started giving importance to it.
Written By - Anika ( interned at Just A Teen )
Fig. 1: https://www.outlookindia.com/outlookmoney/magazine/story/making-mental-health-a-priority-85
Fig. 2: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/5-charts-that-reveal-how-india-sees-mental-health/
Fig. 3: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/5-charts-that-reveal-how-india-sees-mental-health/
Fig. 4: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5479084/#ref11
Fig. 5: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/mental-health-care-crisis-indian-campuses-70794