Why investing in adolescent mental health matters

Young people are tomorrow's leaders and will shape the future of the world. We must give them the tools to build their narrative today. Mental health programs for our youth are an important investment area

Anisha Padukone
Updated: May 7, 2021 11:07:00 AM UTC

Anisha Padukone is CEO of LiveLoveLaugh, a charitable trust set up in 2015 to give hope to every person experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression

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Image: Shutterstock

The pandemic has brought the importance of mental health into sharp focus. While some changes in guidelines may have brought respite from the effect of isolation that was prompted by the earlier restrictions, the stress and anxiety from the uncertainty around us persists. For adolescents already dealing with change–social, psychological, emotional and physical–this phase has been distressing, and we need to address the problem now.

According to WHO, 50 percent of all mental health conditions can surface in people as early as 14 years of age but often go untreated and undetected. This figure is even more staggering when you consider that, at over 253 million, India has the largest adolescent population in the world. These young people are tomorrow's leaders who will shape the narrative of our society, and we must give them the tools to build their narrative today. To address the challenge effectively, however, we must understand it first.

An adolescent in this day and age faces a raft of challenges that were non-existent even as recently as ten years ago. Drastic schedule changes, a digital ecosystem that is constantly on, and the effect of isolation–on a mind and body already in flux–are just a few of the difficulties young people are tackling. Combine this with the lack of clarity about the future, and it is easy to see how the current circumstances may leave a lasting impact on these impressionable young minds. Teenage is usually a time to establish a sense of self, engaging in team activities, and discovering areas of value. The current circumstances emphasise coping, sometimes through means that may not be helpful in the long run. Like any mental health condition, everyone experiences the current state of flux differently, and organisations and individuals must provide the right interventions to prevent lasting effects. Some of the potential interventions include:

Establishing a framework for success For any initiative to have a sizable impact, it needs structure, focus, and resources. We should look to build culturally congruent programs for adolescent mental health focused on specific aspects of well-being. A concerted effort is integral to the success of these programs, as piecemeal interventions will only offer cosmetic and often short-lived benefits. Beyond cultural congruence and scale, experts should build every intervention based on science-backed research to deliver results. These programs should emphasise early detection and early intervention to prevent any significant impairment.

The need for comprehensive intervention
Additionally, youth mental health programs cannot be standalone projects operating in silos. Creators must integrate them into various social systems—academic, judicial, social, healthcare, and community. Especially in a country like India, we must focus on broadening the reach of these initiatives. Cost, training, and access remain perennial challenges, but these do not qualify as excuses to avoid getting started. The cost of apathy is far more substantial than any early teething troubles. Equally important in the process is the role of parents, educators, and caregivers.

Empowering caregivers
The pandemic has meant that adolescents now spend a lot more time with or around their parents and caregivers than ever before. Training these stakeholders to identify and manage potential conditions and how to seek assistance, could be critical to early treatment. Although the mental health conversation has entered the mainstream, the quality of discourse requires more nuanced understanding, which calls for focused education initiatives. People in the helping professions–mental health experts and community leaders–should look to make parents and caregivers more aware of the potential mental health concerns and also destigmatise the idea of seeking help. As a culture, we are wary of the social consequences of seeking help for our mental health. It is possible to reduce these reservations through assurance, conversations, and education. Educators, interacting with learners through online channels, face their own challenges but can be taught to assess behaviour through a defined set of markers before flagging it off to parents or guardians. If the home itself is a source of distress, institutions should equip educators with the protocol to report issues and find external help.

Creating safe spaces
The most important factor, however, might be our ability to create an environment of support. We should encourage adolescents to talk about anything they feel, and understand that whatever they're going through is unique and valid. Often, it may seem instinctual to censor specific topics of conversation or brush them under the carpet, hoping they will disappear. We cannot forget that parents, caregivers, and educators are handling their own mental well-being, and any proposed solution should consider their needs as well. We're living through a tough time, and there is no shame in acknowledging that. Equally, it's no reason to postpone action. After all, courage is not the ability to ignore fear but to act while living alongside it.

The writer is CEO of LiveLoveLaugh, a charitable trust set up in 2015 to give hope to every person experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression

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