The world is passing through an unprecedented time. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing massive disruptive changes in many ways. The way we work, connect, interact and socialise with others is getting transformed. In India, not only are we facing economic turmoil of unprecedented magnitude and a major showdown at our international borders but also struggling hard to control the spread of pandemic across the states. Also owing to the shutdown of schools, colleges and universities, there has been a tremendous impact on the younger generation. However, this impact is invisible, hidden and still to be assessed. Over and above, we are not realising the undercurrent wave of mental health problems, which are taking the shape of another endemic.
India has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and they are the worst affected. They are in deep uncertainty and suffering from anxiety about their studies and career. They are also a part of a highly fragile and vulnerable age. Since they lack mental toughness, the young easily get distressed and overwhelmed. Statistics prove this: every hour one student commits suicide in India, with about 28 such suicides reported every day, according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Just a month prior to March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 had just begun in India, the Lancet, a well-regarded medical Journal, published a report relating to mental disorders across the states in India, titled, “The Global Burden of Disease Study 1990-2017”. The study claimed that nearly 197 million Indians were suffering from mental disorders, including 45.7 million reported to have depressive disorders, and 44.9 million were suffering from anxiety disorders.
These numbers are huge, more than the largest European country, Russia, whose population is only about 146 million. Now imagine more than half of these cases belong to generations below the age of 25 years! This is a mind-blowing problem for the country.
It’s a matter of great concern that more than 50% of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Experts are anticipating a surge in cases relating to the Internet and mobile addiction, depression, anxiety and suicides. All the more, the social isolation, fear, uncertainty, loss of job in the family and economic devastation are making the things worse.
Even prior to the pandemic outbreak, the cases of mental illnesses were rising steadily. In India, we have another problem of not discussing such issues in the family and seeking counselling and therapy. That’s why a large per cent of mental health-related cases go unnoticed and unaccounted in India. This further aggravates the problem.
The World Economic Forum estimated that direct and indirect costs of mental health amounts to over 4% of global GDP, more than the cost of cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease combined. This could cost the global economy up to many trillion dollars if this mega-problem is not addressed in time.
Unlike developed nations, researchers and policymakers in India are clueless about the spread of the problem and cost to the nation. No major study has been conducted in India to estimate the impact of the pandemic on mental health.
Since performance in colleges and universities determine their future, students are invariably stressed. Parents’ expectations, the workload of studies and hyper-competitive environment contribute to creating severe distress among the majority of the students.
However, schools and colleges are places where students are also de-stressed. These learning places are the buzzing hubs where students meet and interact with each other. With so many extra-curriculum activities to enjoy there, these are the unique places where young minds are nurtured and grown. Now with pandemic around, the students are imprisoned in their homes. They desperately miss their place of education. This is a major reason why the impact is more severe on their mental well-being.
The UN estimates that the pandemic has affected more than one billion students worldwide. As of mid-July, schools were closed in some 160 countries, affecting more than 1 billion students, while at least 40 million children have missed out on pre-school. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).