COVID-19: An epidemic of Uncertainties and Mental Health Crisis for India’s Youth

In another perplexing incident, a 16-year-old girl committed suicide by shooting herself; starting another conversation about mental health. What left many eyebrows raised was an eighteen-page suicide note addressed to the Prime Minister of India. The note which was found on Tuesday by the Police, urged the Prime Minister to take cognizance of the ever-growing population, corruption, environmental problems, and social desensitization. The girl’s father, who is a farmer, said, “The suicide note is my daughter’s last wish. We want that the letter must reach the Prime Minister.”

The girl who was a student at a private school in Babrala, Uttar Pradesh; committed suicide on the night of August 14,2020 by shooting herself. The police recovered the revolver and sent her body for post-mortem.

While India ranks twenty-one in the global suicide rate rankings, it tops the charts when it come to youth suicide. With the advent of the pandemic and its consequent impact, the condition of India’s youth has only worsened. The aforesaid suicide of a 16-year old is only one in 28 student-suicides that take place in India ‘everyday’. Unfortunately, most of them go unnoticed in the national forum, this one, however, serves an alarming lesson; in what all the youth of India isn’t envisaging for themselves and the world. The suicide-letter addressed to the Prime Minister offers a quick reality check into the state of affairs of the nation; and the fears of its youth.

The Youth Capital of the World & their Mental Health

Approximately 600 million population in India is younger than 25 years of age. Also, close to 70% of the total population is less than 40 years of age. The National Youth Policy defines Near about 40% of the Indian population aged between 13 to 35 years as youth. Such a huge population of young is not only exceptional in India but also in the World. But, that makes it all the more imperative for the government to utilize the demographic dividend effectively.

Globally, the youth are being forced to confront an uncertain future because of disruptions in education and employment; access to education is constricted and unemployment is rising on account of the pandemic. Ironically, measures to mitigate the threat of Covid-19 like social distancing norms; are only adding to the burden on the mind. The public discourse on Covid-19 continues to view the contagion in physiological terms. Consequently, little is being said or done about its debilitating psychological impact.

Unemployment: Here to Stay?

As many as 41 lakh youths in the country lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic while construction and farm sector workers account for the majority of job losses, according to a joints report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). According to the report, a reason young people in the region face greater labour market disruption and job losses than adults. The reason being that nearly half of them (more than 10 crore ) were employed in the four sectors hardest hit by the crisis. The sectors are wholesale and retail trade and repair; manufacturing; rental and business services; and accommodation and food services.

According to CMIE job loss of 27 million youngsters in their 20s will have serious long-term repercussions. “They will have to compete with the new cohorts joining the labour force after them, for fewer jobs,” it said. It added that young India will not be able to build the savings it will require later in life. Further, 33 million men and women in their 30s lost jobs in April out of which 86% of the job losses were among men, it said.

Job losses among the young population would have implications on savings. “While households may well conserve cash during these times; the loss of jobs among the young deprives households of the extra cash that is mostly saved for either buying a house or durables or for retirement,” it said.

An Epidemic of Mental Health Issues

A study reported in WHO, conducted for the NCMH (National Care Of Medical Health), states that at least 6.5 per cent of the Indian population suffers from some form of the serious mental disorder, with no discernible rural-urban differences. While mental health workforce in India (per 100,000 population) includes psychiatrists (0.3), nurses (0.12), psychologists (0.07) and social workers (0.07).

Of the coronavirus’s many unnoticed side effects, perhaps the least appreciated are psychological. More surprisingly, it’s also the youngest adults who are suffering the most mental anguish, in India and presumably elsewhere too. Even in good times, adolescents and young adults aren’t exactly paragons of emotional stability. So, in times of career instability, economic slowdown, and rise in anxieties, the youth has bore the brunt of the pandemic.

While the UN has been emphasizing the importance of addressing mental health as part of government response to the pandemic, the ground reality in countries like India remains vastly different. The lockdown meant that while millions of people were working from home during this time, many others who did not have this option were rendered unemployed. Migrant workers were stuck in towns and cities, without income, practically stranded away from home during the crisis. This meant (at least temporary) homelessness and starvation for a large portion of the working-class population.

According to WHO reports, there is hardly one mental health practitioner in India, per 100,000 people. One specific report had stated that by end of 2020, about 20% of the Indian population is likely to be affected by mental health issues. The same doesn’t seem to be surprising anymore as the year comes to an end.

The Way Forward

Need for Active Participation & Inclusivity

Despite several NGOs and mental health institutes such as the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) having widely circulated their helpline numbers; it is still difficult for people to reach out for help. The stigma and lack of awareness regarding the issue are systemic and deep-rooted. Herein lies the importance of private companies and educational institutions focusing on the issue. The approach that we require is two-pronged – we need greater awareness and sensitization, alongside increased investment in mental health services.

For policy makers, this means they must consider both the virus and the human mind when deciding future policies. The question that arises then, is whether or not it will at all be possible for our government’s response to the ongoing crisis to also incorporate the mental health dimension? The Indian Parliament did pass the Mental Healthcare Bill in 2017, with several provisions for the diagnosis and treatment of patients of mental illnesses.

The legislation also mentions the right to homeless or Below Poverty Line (BPL)  individuals to avail such services, even without a BPL card. However, the implementation of these provisions on the ground has been far from ideal. Given the state of affairs of our public health infrastructure, the task of including mental health in the response to the COVID-19 would also have to be shared by NGOs, and private corporations. 

It is important for everyone to get involved. Workshops and programs in schools, colleges, corporates and communities can help foster a movement for mental health. The internet and the social media have a huge role to play as well. They have the power to break taboos and alleviate stigma.

Mitigating the Job Crisis

Prioritizing youth employment in the COVID-19 recovery process should improve India’s future prospects for inclusive and sustainable growth; demographic transition and social stability. However, what is less clear is the state of job creation in sectors that saw the worst lay-offs; specifically in various service-oriented industries.

The future calls on state as well as the central government to adopt urgent, large-scale and targeted measures to generate jobs for the youth; keep education and training on the track, and to minimise future scarring of more than 660 million young Indians. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, youth in Asia and the Pacific faced challenges in the labour market, resulting in high unemployment rates and large shares of youth excluded from both school and work.

One optimistic datapoint in this aspect is that July 2020 recorded the highest registration of new companies in the country in more than seven years, a sign that some believe may be of reinvigorated interest by investors and plans by local entrepreneurs to start new business ventures. However, whether it is indicative of investor interest can only be known after investigating it.