Mental Health comes with a stigma.
We can talk on and on about presentations, meetings, relatives, sports practice, extracurricular activities, test scores, college cut-offs and applications, etc., basically, all the places which may contribute to mental stress or may show its symptoms. BUT we don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room – mental health conditions which if left untreated can burden the students’ lives for much of their adulthood.
To lighten the burden of isolation-triggered mental health conditions, UK appointed a “minister of loneliness”. In 1971, Bhutan rejected GDP as the way to measure the country’s progress and prosperity. Instead, it adopted GNH, Gross National Happiness, to assess the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.
Coming to India, we aren’t a very happy nation. We presently stand at 144 out of 156 countries in the UN World Happiness Report 2020 (full list). While we have a lot on our plate to be able to replace GDP with GNH, the worrisome fact is that our mental health budget is only 1-2% of the entire healthcare budget. Stack it up against the cases of depression (58 million) and government-run mental hospitals (43), the ray of hope seems dimmer. Yes, our Parliament passed Mental Healthcare Bill in 2017, but with less than 1 mental health professionals per 1,00,000 mentally ill patients, we have a long way to go.
Can we do anything about it?
Yes. We need to nip it in the bud!
The above data will cease to sound depressing if we take the right measures at the right age. Changing the narrative around mental health, supporting mental health awareness, and ending the stigma in a populous country like India with multitudes of belief systems is a huge ask. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Nope! And the best place to start a conversation on a community level is the schools.
Why Mental Health Education in schools
The pressure of education, getting into the right college, performing well in the diversified interests, parental expectations, etc. have led to an increase in the number of suicides committed by students. When schools start giving lessons on mental health awareness, the benefit will be two-pronged: It will force the school authorities to think more about the pressure they put on students and second, awareness will arm the students with the right tools to deal with the stress.
Another reason why schools should spearhead the mental health revolution in India is accessibility. It’s true that even the most well-meaning families are not equipped to handle mental health awareness. Either they are too busy earning for the family, or they are dealing with their own emotional issues which makes them unfit to deliver the right mental health support to their children. They have their own insecurities, fears, shame, and deep-seated guilt to tackle. After all, even they didn’t receive the right mental health support in their formative years!
A mandatory mental health awareness class in schools and all-time availability of a counsellor can do wonders for students and community at large. Government schools in Delhi have started a Happiness Curriculum which guides students on how to take ownership of your feelings, self-worth and deal with challenging situations. At first, I believed it to be a publicity stunt, but when I interacted with the students, my perspective changed.
The Magic of Happiness Curriculum
One of the exercises in the curriculum is about breathing and being mindful of your feelings. The students take a deep breath, mull over their emotions, accept them and send love to themselves. There have been times I had to force myself to do that in an office washroom after I had a good cry for whatsoever reason. So, I was curious what a child who only had homework to worry about would feel after such an exercise.
Wow! I instantly reflected on how many times I buried myself in work or chocolates just to not feel real and yet find one thing that could push me to convince otherwise. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of person I’d have been had I got that in my childhood!
All our adult life, most of us just want to feel authentic. We want to feel validated, accepted, and loved for our authentic selves. Most of us struggle to find one good reason to deserve our own love! I feel so grateful that one student at a time, the attitude of our society towards acceptance and mental health is changing.
Does This Absolve us of our Responsibility?
Schools are a good starting point for dialogue around mental health, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there. It is our responsibility to take those tools and mend some more hearts. Sometimes listening is all the help one needs to be able to hop back on the train of peace.
Here’s what we can do to support the mental health of our loved ones:
- Start a conversation. Replace “how you’re doing?” with “how are you feeling today?” Push a little now and then to genuinely see if things are alright.
- Drop gentle reminders. Most people feel strong enough to deal with stress even though they may be imploding. Directly offering your help can trigger their self-defence system. So, drop a gentle reminder, “I know you can handle anything, but if you ever need help or just someone to listen to you, I’m here.”
- Talk about your own mental struggles. Trust is a two-way street. If you feel that something is stopping your loved one in opening up to you, you can share a story of your own challenge. They might open up or they might not. But, knowing that you trusted them would make them consider reaching out to you in future.
- Start a stigma jar. Crazy, insane, depressed are words we throw around casually. Those who are struggling with mental health, these words are disconcerting and force them to go into their shells. Therefore, having a stigma jar in workplaces can help shift the narrative. Every time someone uses stigmatising words, a mental health stereotype, discriminate, or show prejudice, they pay a fine.