Education is a foundational step in a child's life which the child takes as early as by the age of 3 years. But what has education become now? Hardly anything but rote-learning and rat-race. Instead of instilling necessary life skills, it has become a stressed-fill necessity. The gap between what education is and what it should have been being constantly widening. The picture which comes forward is mind-boggling and requires immediate attention. Research by the Indian Council of Medical Research suggests that 12-13% of school students in India suffer from mental, emotional and communicative problems. Students all over the world are living with diagnosed mental disorders. However, the situation in India is worse. Most students are undiagnosed or untreated. The stigma around mental health still exists. The Indian Journal of Psychiatry revealed in 2019 that 50 million children in India had mental health issues with no support howsoever. These problems which seem so common can have a drastic impact on them. Students’ mental health is so severely impacted that it also leads to suicide. A survey conducted by American College Health Association (2015) suggests that the most common mental health problems that occur with students are:
Stress – We can define stress as an internal state often caused due to physiological, social or environmental factors. Now, the interesting part to be noted is that stress isn’t really bad. We all need a certain level of stress to function on a daily basis. This form of stress is called ‘eustress’ and is considered a good form of stress. Any form of stress beyond this point is often termed as ‘distress’. Almost 30% of students seem to be distressed about something or the other. A student can be stressed about something as little as low grades on a test or missing the due date for an assignment and by something as big as deaths in the family, financial strains, etc. Stress seems to be the starting and the most significant factor which gives way to other mental health problems.
Anxiety – Oxford dictionary defines anxiety as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. As we read above, a student faces a number of stressors on a regular basis, some of which are very anxiety-provoking. Especially in this pandemic era, the fear of uncertainty and a blurred vision of the future has given rise to anxious thoughts. It is reported that 22% of students battle with anxiety every day. Anxiety can turn into anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, etc. if not identified early and can severely impact a student’s personal and social life.
Sleep difficulties – We all know how important 8 hours of sleep is for a healthy body and mind. Does everyone get this much sleep? Students, for sure, do not. There can be a number of reasons behind that but the role of academic pressure cannot be ignored. Overburdened students (almost 20%) feel the need to sacrifice their sleep to meet high academic demands without realizing the dangers and adverse impacts on health. Lower concentration and attention levels, absent-mindedness, irritable mood are some common side effects. Sleep difficulties can also lead to sleep disorders like Insomnia or Hypersomnia in no time.
Depression – Depression is identified as a separate mood disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. In simple words, depression can be defined as persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities. Daily stress, anxiety, sleeping difficulties can easily lead to depression. 14% of students have reported often feeling depressed and not knowing what to do about it. Depression can be life-threatening as it can result in suicide. Research conducted by Kumar & others (2013) indicates that India has arrived at a stage of alarming suicide rates among students with 26 suicides reported every 24 hours due to issues including drugs, broken families, fights with friends and breakups. Prolonged exposure to such stressors leads to long term physiological and emotional disturbances, which severely hinders a student’s learning & development.
Eating disorders - The prevalence of eating disorders is most among students. These disorders are characterized by eating too much (Bulimia Nervosa), eating too little (Anorexia Nervosa) or Binge Eating. Students indulge in unhealthy patterns of eating due to peer pressure as well. It is also hypothesized that not being able to perform well in academics can trigger a feeling of worthlessness among students which might influence feeling unworthy in every way. They start being conscious about little things and start judging themselves too harshly. They start developing body issues and comparing themselves to others. This often ends with them either being bulimic or anorexic and further deteriorating mental health.
Substance abuse and addiction - Struggling with mental health issues are not desirable by anyone for obvious reasons. How to cope up with such challenges is a question that everyone asks. The student community has found a solution for that too but unfortunately an unhealthy one! Substance use (or abuse) is a coping mechanism for many to deal with stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Peer pressure is the second most common reason for it. While the substance might provide temporary relief but it is a well-known fact that it can be highly addictive and dangerous for an individual’s mind and body.
When talking about the mental health of students, it is inevitable to discuss the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Educational institutions do not only provide academic knowledge but serve as second homes to students. A student has an emotional attachment to the institutions he/she is associated with. This pandemic has taken away that experience from students. As discussed earlier in this article, fear and uncertainty about the future is a contributor to ill mental health among individuals. Forced to actively participate in academic activities despite battling with anxiety, stress, isolation and fear resulted in nothing but poor performance and failure to achieve academic goals. With everything shifted to online mode, it has become difficult for Indian students to keep up with the demands of digitalized classrooms, especially those with no or very little access to online resources. We heard of suicides case among students from lower-economic backgrounds due to the inability to afford a laptop for online studies. The pandemic has disrupted a student’s both education and recreation simultaneously raising concern for financial and health stability.
The big question is what can be done about it?
How can we actually protect young minds? The first step is to raise awareness. According to a survey conducted by UNICEF and Gallup (2021), we got to know that the youth of India is reluctant to seek help for dealing with mental health issues. Only 41 per cent of young people between 15 -24 years of age in India said that it is good to get support for mental health problems. If the young minds themselves do not understand the importance of mental health, what will we do by increasing resources? The stigma attached to mental health is disturbing and shocking. People often treat individuals with mental health problems as dangerous and ‘crazy’. The difference between having a mental illness/disorder and being mentally healthy is yet not clear among the Indian population. One-third of young people display poor knowledge of mental health problems and negative attitudes towards people with mental health problems. Neither are these individuals able to identify mental health problems nor do they believe in receiving treatment. We must ensure to create a sensitive, empathetic and protective environment for our learners. Sensitization programs for parents, educators and caregivers need to be normalized. People should be ready to have open discussions on such issues.
Now, creating awareness is definitely a significant step but it is not enough. The next step i.e., to provide effective and efficient mental health resources and services is equally important. We do not have enough mental health professionals to meet the demands of society. The professionals working in this field are overutilized and underpaid. One school with thousands of children have 2-3 school counsellors. Central universities either do not have counselling facilities or if they have, the ratio over there is also baffling. There is hardly any funding from the government to avail of mental health resources. We do have schemes for physical health but we have none for our minds. The State of the World’s Children 2021 calls on governments, and public and private sector partners, to promote mental health for all children and adolescents. It is the need of the hour to urgently invest in prevention and intervention resources. Promotion of mental health not only across education but also in health and social sectors can help reduce the gap that has been created. This is not something that can happen in a day but tremendous efforts are required from all sides.
To sum it up, a quote by Dalai Lama sits perfectly – “When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.”