From our adult tinted glasses, we like to assume that the young have it so easy. We talk about the good old days of our childhood when we had no care or the tedious responsibilities of adulthood to weigh us down. What we would not give to go back to that ‘carefree age’ again except that in reality we would not. Not if we really knew what it is to be a kid these days.
Let’s take a typical kid in middle or high school. Every day for her is like walking on a tightrope as she balances what is expected from her at school and from her family. So on one hand, there is the daily struggle of homework, submissions, projects, exams, or the dreaded countdown to “The Boards” and staying on the right side of her teachers’ good books. And on the other, there is the inevitable load of her family’s expectations, their demands and dreams from her.
Along with bilateral balancing on the tightrope, visualise her with another vertical pressure. Her desperate attempt to keep her perch on the social hierarchy which depends so much on her looks, body shape (and the inevitable body shaming if she is not thin enough), what she wears, how she talks, how she walks, what music she listens to, her family background. Then there is the preoccupation about finding a boyfriend (you are obviously a loser if you don’t have one), split-ups, rumours that go viral and what not. I remember a 15-year-old telling me once, “Life was so simple for you when you were my age. If you had a fight with a friend in school, you would go back home and by the next day you would be ready to forget about it and start afresh. However, nowadays we are all connected 24X7 and everything is discussed, analysed on WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat so many times. By the next day a simple fight has morphed into something so ugly and warped!” Let us admit it, for a typical teenager, day to day life is at times like getting ready for war every day.
Now you might think that I am taking a very bleak view of what our children are going through. But hear me out. WHO (World Health Organisation) estimates that one in four young Indians face mental health conditions. It is estimated that 50% of the mental health conditions begin before the age of 14 years. In India, suicide is the leading cause of death in the youth. A student commits suicide every hour. I see children as young as 10-year-old who take to cutting themselves as a way of coping with their emotional distress. I am sure each one of you reading this would know at least one child or a teenager who is struggling with some emotional problem.
Many mental health professionals refer to this problem as an ‘epidemic’ in the young. However, I would disagree with that on two counts. One — epidemic implies that it is an illness or a disease which it is not. It is an extremely complex problem within our sociocultural context which needs a nuanced understanding. Two — it absolves us of the collective responsibility we need to take
Most children go through difficult times emotionally even if it does not reach the intensity of depression, anxiety, eating disorder etc. It could be anywhere in the spectrum from difficulty in keeping up with academics, problem making friends, heartbreak, worries about future, being witness to family conflict or financial troubles, to bullying, being isolated, struggling with their sexual identity or gender, body shaming to sexual abuse. Being a kid is not all fun and games any more.