The silence around the mental health of our children has always worried me. Ask any educator and they will agree that the last ten years have seen an escalation of issues and concerns around the mental health and emotional well-being of our children. And we have good reason to worry. Globally, in the last fifteen years, researchers have given us increasingly alarming statistics on the sharp and steady increase in childhood mental illness that is now reaching historic proportions, and the pandemic has escalated that even further.

Approximately 15 per cent of children and adolescents globally indicate the prevalence of mental health disorders. It is recognised that 50 per cent of mental health disorders begin by the age of
fourteen and 75 per cent by the age of twenty-four, and this makes child and adolescent mental health a global priority.

Closer home, the statistics are even more worrying. India is the most depressed country in the world, according to the World Health Organization, followed by China and the USA. Even as suicides are completely individualised in society to absolve our state institutions of any responsibility, suicide rates in India are higher than the global average, highlighting a burgeoning public and mental health crisis.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s Accidental Death and Suicides report, student suicides spiked to 12,256 deaths in 2019–20 – 8.2 per cent of the total number. We are also seeing an increase in learning disabilities, communication, and behavioural disorders – more and more students are being diagnosed on the autism spectrum and with attention deficit disorders – and in this context, we realise the significance of inclusive education. And perhaps the most worrying of all, the rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm in our young have increased.

In essence, India is facing a serious mental health crisis, with an estimated fifty-six million people suffering from depression and thirty-eight million from anxiety disorders, according to a report by
the World Health Organization. The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) has proposed to make the counselling of parents mandatory so that students have a stress-free environment at home. The data indicates that mental stress is one of the most common factors behind student suicide. What is happening and what are we doing wrong? I spoke to established therapists working with children and parents to understand the scale of the problem.

Family therapists and child psychologists Dr Shelja Sen and Dr Amit Sen found that the landscape had changed dramatically on their return to India in 2003 after an absence of eight years. ‘When we came back we found that services for children’s mental health were few and far between. We realised that in the larger scheme of things, the understanding of mental health was very low and child mental
health was an even lower priority because it doesn’t give the revenue and the quick buck that other services would,’ Dr Shelja told me.

This is echoed by psychotherapist Gloria Burrett, who returned from the UK in 2006 and set up her practice at the Shri Ram School and Sitaram Bhartia Hospital. She was shocked by the fact that children and adults were coming out of the woodwork seeking help. ‘We were having to push people out of the door, even during our lunch hour. At school, it was kids dying to talk. It ranged from adoption issues to family breakups, custody battles, and parents’ mental health issues leading to anxiety in kids as young as class one.’

Dr Shelja paints a vivid picture of the ground reality that faced them. ‘There has been a huge escalation (in mental health awareness) in the last ten years. The number of children we are seeing has escalated like how! And we’re getting younger and younger people with mental health difficulties – cutting in young children as young as nine- to ten-year-olds – depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and intent, OCD, eating disorders, and bipolar disorders. And along with that we have the neuro developmental difficulties like ADHD, autism spectrum, and learning disabilities.’

Parents and children are struggling with family and relationship issues, but Dr Shelja cautions against using the term ‘epidemic’ to describe the situation because it implies it is an illness that is spreading, as if it is a cultural trend or a transmissible disease.

To my interminable question of why this is happening, her response was both wise and measured. She believes that we have to look at the problem from the larger lens of the society we live in. ‘It is society that’s broken and not the children. Children are the canaries of the time, they reflect what society is doing and feeling. As a society we are going through a huge amount of disconnection...while being connected 24/7 on our phones and social media. But in terms of meaningful connection – we are losing out.’

I asked Dr Shelja what she meant by ‘meaningful connection’, and as she explained, it’s all about acceptance – accepting who we are and not having to pretend to be anything else. ‘That connection is one on one, here and now. But if my connection with you is on social media all the time, on the number of likes and the number of followers, and if my worthiness comes from that, then we don’t spend time in conversation with our loved ones.’

Her words mirror the thoughts of the teens I have spoken to. How the whole issue of reputation, popularity, and image starts at a very early age, with beautiful girls believing that they are fat and
ugly. Children are afraid to share personal struggles with friends in case it ends up on social media. Petty fights go up on social media, and when that happens you cannot have conflict resolution, because the pain is too deep. The pressure is on students and parents to be what they are not.

Of course digitisation feeds into this because, as Dr Shelja explains, ‘When I’m feeling disconnected I look for that connection more and more in the virtual world, on social media, and I try to portray a certain image, a certain look, because that’s what’s giving me the validation. It’s a false world I am building up. We find parents coming to us with concerns about the children’s internet use or addiction, and we look for a reason for that. Why is the child addicted to that? What is happening? And many times we find that the child is struggling with depression, and the depression could be due to academic struggles. She has never had a sense of doing well and there is a sense of being shamed.’

At times their only escape is the high they get from the gaming world. The dopamine rush from this experience is much more fun than the real world. ‘So we have these young kids who have completely stopped going to school. They are sitting at home, up the whole night on Fortnite or Counter Strike or all these games, because that’s where they’re getting that sense of connection, it’s a pseudo connection, but it is a connection. In the real world they have no connection, because there they have to prove themselves to be somebody, and they can’t because they think they are failures,’ adds Dr Shelja.

Excerpted with permission from Parenting in the Age of Anxiety: Raising Children in India in the 21st Century, Abha Adams, Alpeh Book Company.