“I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin,” said one of the world’s most celebrated Nobel Prize winner Physicist. One might have expected him to have spoken about the Theory of Relativity, solving the riddle of the photoelectric effect, or his seminal contributions to nuclear energy. But no one would have thought that Albert Einstein would point towards the humble violin; gifted to him by his mother at the age of 6, to be one of his biggest source of happiness?
Einstein’s sister once confessed that he “had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn?” Einstein’s love for music and learning a musical instrument helped him overcome many limitations as a child. Later, Einstein himself confessed that his love of music played a key role in the cognitive development in his early years and also helped him deal with emotions and interpersonal relationships.
Studies have shown that between the ages of 2 to 7 years our brains undergo drastic developmental changes. It reaches about 90% of its adult size by the age of 7. Between the age of 10 and 25 years, it undergoes changes that have implications on their learning, behaviour, psychology and other critical functions. These initial formative years are critical for physical and mental growth. However, mental health is a looming issue that could prove detrimental to the growth of our children, which is often neglected and stigmatized.
According to UNICEF, children with mental health disorders remain largely undiagnosed, because most parents are hesitant in seeking help or treatment. As per the Indian Journal of Psychiatry(August, 2019), even before the pandemic, at least 50 million children in India were estimated to be dealing with mental health issues. The worst part being that 80-90% have not sought support and continue to remain untreated.
Without treatment, many mental health issues can be carried over into adulthood. Such kids are most likely to grow up and have a higher chance of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and violent or self-destructive behaviour, among other things.
But should we blame our children for not opening up, when it’s the adults who need to open their purview to the problem at hand? According to a study from 2013 it showed that there was discrimination, and stigma towards, mental disorders, which was a significant barrier towards seeking mental health service in India. “It contributes to delays in seeking care, impedes timely diagnosis and treatment for mental disorders, serves as an impediment to recovery and rehabilitation, and ultimately reduces the opportunity for fuller participation in life,” the paper said.
Additionally, the National Mental Health Survey in India conducted in 2016 estimated that at least 150 million individuals required short term and long-term mental health interventions. This number could have easily doubled in the past 6 years, with the pandemic also contributing significantly. When such a large section of the adult population requires attention to their mental health, are stigmatized for seeking support and are left undiagnosed themselves, then how do we ensure that our children experience positive mental health?
However, there are a few welcome changes that have developed, driven by the widespread opening up of the voices for better mental wellbeing, which is a requirement in the post pandemic era where social interactions have become largely virtual. Under the aegis of the National Mental Health Mission, the Maharashtra government has started four courses related to mental health in three regional hospitals across Thane, Pune and Nagpur. In spite of the fact that the courses have been presented after three long years of its endorsement, it sets the stage for a quicker turnaround time.
Virtual counselling is an important, viable means to scale access to mental health care services. Apart from the private practitioners leading the psychological support, the government is not far behind. During the current year’s budget, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the National Tele-Mental Health Programme (NTMHP), which includes building a network of 23 tele-mental health centres of excellence across India.
In late September, the Bhubaneswar police also propelled a social media campaign to create awareness about mental health and stress management. Meanwhile, on September 6, the member nations of the World Health Organisation’s Southeast Asia region committed to provide universal access to mental healthcare through the Paro Declaration. This declaration calls for an increased funding, a continuous supply of medicines and evidence-based community network.
At the end of the day, we need to realise that mental wellbeing begins at home, and from within. Basic everyday actions such as keeping open and honest communication, letting our children know they are loved and supported, providing positive feedback, and including them in day-to-day decision making are the building blocks that can shape emotionally mature and strong citizens of tomorrow. An integrated approach across health, education, addressing stigma and promoting investments in mental health for child & adolescents can propel India and the world to greater heights.