Covid-19 leaving Indian youth in a poor mental health state. Is it the next pandemic?

Covid-19 leaving Indian youth in a poor mental health state. Is it the next pandemic?

Mental health is something we Indians still look at with lots of prejudices. But a mentally healthy country and young population can make miracle in achieving the country a prosperous and strong economy. India should address the mental health concerns invoked by the Covid-19 pandemic, as sweeping it will leave the country lamenting the losses for years to come.

The mental health of a country’s youth significantly impacts and influences the well-being of the country through various routes – social, political, economic and human capital etc. A sound state of mental health is very important for a country’s overall robust cognitive growth, comprehensive wellbeing, enhanced productivity, economic growth, social and political development. As it seems, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is severely impacting those parameters of the world, especially the low and lower-middle-income countries such as India

Mental healthcare in India has always got the treatment of a second-class citizen, because of several factors. Mental health is determined by the factors such as geopolitical stability, socioeconomic stability, corruption, employment, environment, economic strength, prejudice, awareness, social stigma etc. In India, there are several factors that play adverse roles against sound mental health. The recent economic crisis, political turmoils have impacted the mental health of the Indian youth detrimentally., if not for all, but for a majority for sure. The pandemic has just accelerated the crisis further.

No wonder India was completely unprepared for the mental health crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought along. Even now as well, despite we are witnessing the effects of mental health illness, there are not many activities happening to address this issue, which could evolve into a bigger crisis and maybe another pandemic as well. For a country that pompously dreams of achieving a $5 trillion economy in this decade, there is a big question mark that remains ahead. How the pandemic induced mental health deterioration is going to affect India’s economic future?

As the International Labor Organisation (ILO) has already stated that if there is no timely action taken to stem the mental health crisis, India’s youth may suffer severe and long-term effects that will impact their productivity, and in turn the national economy of the country.

India was ranked 139 out of 149 countries in the latest Happiness Index.

Just a few weeks ago, India was ranked 139 out of 149 countries in the latest Happiness Index. In the last over one year period, Indians across the country have reported being anxious, depressed and fearful severely, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The fear of losing the family members, economic instability, employment insecurity, growing unrest in the socioeconomic structure, political incompetence, poor access to physical and mental healthcare and scarce economic opportunities have impacted the Indians severely. The youths have attributed a large chunk of this population suffering from poor mental health.

Adding salt to the wound was the distressing news and images of bodies floating in the Ganga, numerous deaths, mass cremation or burial, oxygen and bed crisis, helpless healthcare workers along with factors such as pandemic-induced isolation, financial desolation, administrative inability to acknowledge the scale of the crisis etc, especially in May 2021 during the peak of the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. All of these have likely hit the Indian youth hard enough to be driven towards a state of distressing mental health. If we take the data from Kaiser Family Foundation or KFF for indication, the younger adults are the most affected due to these factors.

Mental health
Source: UNICEF

According to a Forbes article, more than 65% of young adults in India, aged 18-24 years, suffer from depression. The closures of universities, loss of income, low self-esteem have impacted them majorly. Many cases resulted in self-injury or suicides. For instance, in Gujarat alone, the 108 emergency ambulance service received around 800 self-injury and 90 suicide cases. While the suicide prevention and counselling helpline usually got around 8-9 calls per month, with 142 calls from depressed people and a majority of them reported saying to want to end their lives because of facing economic, family or mental health issues.

Interestingly, the situation is more or less similar in the so-called developed world as well. As the KFF study says, in the US, around 32% of adults suffered from depressive or anxiety disorders in 2020, up from 11% in 2019. The percentage jumped to 41.1% in January 2021. Around 56% of them were young adults aged 18-24 years.

The Covid-19 pandemic may precipitate various psychiatric disorders later on in vulnerable children…like OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, somatoform disorder, major depressive disorder even psychotic symptoms like Hypochondriacal delusions, conduct problem, oppositional disorder and attention deficit disorder, interpersonal conflict, lack of confidence, demanding behaviour.

~ Abhiruchi Chattopadhyay, Psychiatrist

As Abhiruchi Chattopadhyay, renowned psychiatrist elaborates, the Covid-19 pandemic can have a long-term impact on young people. These include difficulty in adjusting to the social environment, internet and gadgets addiction. He also said that a few common behavioural changes may be seen in young people due to the pandemic. These include problems like conduct problem, oppositional disorder, interpersonal conflict, lack of confidence, demanding behaviour and attention deficit disorder may happen as well. “Covid-19 pandemic may precipitate various psychiatric disorders later on in vulnerable children…like OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, somatoform disorder, major depressive disorder even psychotic symptoms like Hypochondriacal delusions,” Chattopadhyay further added.

Mental health

A vicious cycle contributing to poorer economy

The socio-economic and political turmoil along with unemployment, Covid-induced economic distress can result in poor mental health, which leads to lower economic productivity and poor employee performance. This is a vicious cycle that is driving the Indian youth towards a mental health crisis. According to a report by ILO and Asian Development Bank (ADB) by August 2021, around 41 lakh Indian youth lost their jobs due to economic recession and the Covid-19 pandemic. Many more lost jobs in the later months owing to the economic crisis accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only the youths who have lost jobs have been impacted by poor mental health. Those still with jobs have become vulnerable to a severely volatile job market. While incessant salary cuts have resulted in the poor economic strength of the people, fear of losing jobs and stiff competition have created an advantageous situation for the insensitive employers to not increase the salaries of the workers despite demanding more work from them.

There have been cases where employers have asked their employees even if the employee has had a family member sick with Covid-19. Opportunistic companies came up with a new idea of employee exploitation called ‘Unpaid Internship’, which is demanding the same level of work as the paid employees and at times even higher than them, without paying a penny.

India’s GDP contraction by 7.3% in FY2020-21 could be linked to the dampened state of mental health as well among other factors.

Forcing employees to work while their family is in crisis can be exhausting, further depreciating their mental health in an already tough situation. This has been driving India’s workforce towards mass burnout. The majority affected by these situations are the young adults who have just passed out of college or in the entry phase of their careers, aged 20-30 years. All of these factors are leading to a severely affected mental state of the Indian youth.

India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contraction by 7.3% in FY2020-21 could be linked to the dampened state of mental health as well among other factors. Remember that from the early 1990s until the pandemic hit the country in early 2020, the Indian economy grew at an average of around 7% every year. The falling trend of the country’s economy has been reported in the last few years when the unrest have been higher than ever before.

Mental health

Young women are impacted more than men

While both young men and women’s mental health has been impacted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the women are in a more vulnerable situation. There have been multiple reports of domestic violence in 2020 during the nationwide lockdown. The physical, economic, emotional and sexual violence against women increased significantly during the lockdown. Violence against women in India has been always in the news and lockdown was no different. The number of domestic violence against women in India during lockdown went much higher than the average.

According to the data published by National Commission for Women (NCW), domestic violence complaints were doubled after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in India in March 2020. Tamil Nadu Police reported an increase in domestic violence complaints, receiving approximately 25 calls every day during the two-month-long lockdown and registered at least 40 such cases. Similarly, Bangalore Police reported a surge in complaints from 10-25 calls every day from domestic violence victims.

These data indicate that domestic violence incidents increased across India during the 2020 lockdown. However, organizations like Jagori, Shakti Shalini, and AKS Foundation reported a decrease in domestic violence complaint calls during the lockdown, which could be attributed to confinement at home, constant monitoring, and controlling decision-making by the abuser, social isolation of victims from friends and family members, reduced options to lodge complaints etc.

There are disparities as well that led to poor mental health for women. The women perform most of the household chores, attend family’s health and food needs without any recognition, leave alone any monetary compensation. In the case of employed women, the burden is double, as they work at home and outside as well.

The increased work pressure, performing household chores left little time for rest for the women. More than half of all working women suffered income loss during the Covid-19 pandemic, as compared to a third of men. Work-related stress, burnout among women workers jumped to 75% in 2020 from 34% in 2019. While the rate of burnout and pandemic-induced stress at work for men was 59% in 2020.

Women can face more adjustment issues because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

~ Abhiruchi Chattopadhyay

As Abhiruchi Chattopadhyay said, while it is difficult to tell whether working women’s mental health has been more affected than men due to the pandemic and its related effects, but women can face more adjustment issues and work from home is a major contributor to that challenge. “As the women are staying at home, there is always societal pressure of doing household chores and taking care of their children is there, whereas men are usually not forced to do those (even when staying at home),” Chattopadhyay explained.

Even before Covid-19, India was projected to lose $1.03 trillion between 2012-2030 owing to the poor mental health of the population.

So far, one thing is clear that the pandemic induced situation resulted in a helpless condition for many women and a majority of them were young women, resulting in long-term trauma and distressing mental health for them. Even before the Covid crisis, around 38% of working women developed psychiatric morbidities that contributed to absenteeism, which increased substantially during the pandemic.

Work from home mental health

What’s the solution to prevent another pandemic?

Mental health in India has always received second-class citizen treatment. Even before Covid-19, India was projected to lose $1.03 trillion between 2012-2030 owing to the poor mental health of the population. The pandemic has certainly increased this volume of loss.

Considering the young population of the country is one of the major strengths of the country, it is highly imperative that their mental health be protected. The government needs to acknowledge the strong link between the young workforce, mental health and economic development. Mental wellbeing should be promoted to prevent the country’s demographic dividend from turning into a demographic disaster.

Despite being the 179th country among 189 countries in prioritising healthcare through government budgets. Indian government allocated merely 1.2% of its GDP for healthcare in 2020 and 1.26% in 2021.

Around 71% of the Indian population still addresses the mental health issue with prejudice. Mental healthcare should be the sector where the government should invest heavily, besides taking measures to improve job security, introducing social security programs etc.

Despite being the 179th country among 189 countries in prioritising healthcare through government budgets. Indian government allocated merely 1.2% of its GDP for healthcare in 2020 and 1.26% in 2021, which should be changed immediately. A physically and mentally healthy country and young population can certainly help India in achieving a better and prosperous economy.

Also Read: New health crisis lurching in the shadow of pandemic and work from home

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