Just as the light at the end of the tunnel had started emerging, the second wave of Covid hit us like a ton of bricks. Just as we had cautiously started putting our lives back together, one small piece at a time, the death and devastation shook our very foundation. Just when children and the youth were beginning to build their hopes up to return to school with their friends or go to college for the first time, their dreams were snatched away yet again.
This pandemic has been a disaster—both natural and man-made—of gargantuan proportions. The death and destruction are way beyond what most of us have ever experienced. Natural disasters like a tsunami or an earthquake can also leave us in ruins, but are finite events that give us a chance to recover once they are over. This behemoth of a virus, on the other hand, has been relentless, has snatched away any emerging hope repeatedly and filled us with paralysing fear and uncertainty, which can be deeply damaging for the emotional well-being of people. But the maximum impact has been on our children and youth; that they are the most vulnerable in the face of such traumatic events is well established in mental health literature. That’s because they are at stages of development when their emotional foundation, which is so central to their sense of self and identity, is only just forming. Witnessing the chaos, the helplessness in caring adults and the breakdown of systems that were meant to protect them can shake their belief, faith and trust in people and the world around them. The ones in the forefront of such experiences, especially those who have lost a parent or close relative, or have seen the despair and dread of family members being rushed from one hospital to another begging for a bed and oxygen, or those who have had to bear the isolation and indignity of death and separation in the ugliest of ways, may become scarred for life.
We, as a nation, are not good at understanding our children’s needs or fulfilling them, especially when it comes to mental health. The policies and laws are great but there are barely any resources on the ground to implement them. Consider that only 0.5 per cent of our country’s annual health budget is allocated to mental health. And out of that, only a minuscule portion, if any, is directed towards child mental health. With the abating of the first wave of Covid-19, offices and businesses started opening up, as did malls, restaurants and tourism. But schools and colleges did not; as if there was no thought or concern about how that would impact the development and well-being of our children and youth. It is, therefore, not surprising that India has one of the highest rates of child abuse (sexual, physical and emotional), depression and suicide amongst children and youth in the world. To complicate matters, the prevalence of substance misuse and screen addiction, in keeping with global trends, had skyrocketed even before COVID-19 hit us. While concerns about excessive technology use is trickling in from across the world, reports from schools and families that we see appear to indicate that screen use and addiction have increased exponentially since the lockdown began.
Besides the direct devastation and trauma caused by the virus, it is the lockdown, in its different forms, that has turned young people’s world upside down. The disruption of daily life, in the form of everyday routines and weekly rhythms, as well as the seasonal breaks and weekend outings that gives us a sense of structure and predictability, has unsettled the platform of emotional stability that we take for granted. These invisible scaffoldings are no longer holding the children or their families together. After the initial euphoria of not having to go to school or college, young people went out of control with their disturbed sleep cycle, constant demands of junk food, mood swings and temper tantrums, and a collapse of trust and communication in many households. The sense of frustration and helplessness was palpable, and parents started reaching out in droves for help. Their attempt to impose discipline and order only made matters worse. And as the weeks stretched to months, holidays had to be cancelled, birthdays and festivals couldn’t be celebrated, and children could no longer meet their closest friends or favourite cousins, or visit doting grandparents as they would during vacations. The youth had lost their freedom to get together in intimate spaces, hang out in their favourite cafes, immerse themselves in their passion for music classes or football coaching. It was as if the pandemic had snatched away valuable connections, freedom and agency that bring pleasure and joy to their lives, and the consequent deep sense of loss led to hopelessness and grief.
The consequences of trauma and loss could be varied and complex. After the initial fear or numbness, occasionally leading to uncontrollable panic and emotional meltdowns, symptoms of anxiety and depression often start to set in. The consequent helplessness, hopelessness and despair could lead many young people to seek immediate succour in substances of abuse or mindless indulgence in gaming or internet surfing. Unfortunately for them, such behaviours can provide temporary relief at best or establish serious addictive patterns at its worst. The ensuing emptiness and despair could drive some of them towards dangerous self-harm or violent behaviours, especially if they feel criticised or when firm restrictions are imposed on them. The WHO had started conducting large-scale surveys across different countries by October 2020—and found that there was a five-fold increase in the reporting of anxiety and depressive symptoms, substance misuse and suicidal behaviours amongst the youth. That was within the very first year of the pandemic. What the second wave may have wrought in India is anybody’s guess.
But all is not doom and gloom. While the state has abandoned us, individuals and groups have come together to form collectives of courage, with new-found compassion, cooperation and eagerness to help each other. While institutions have crumbled, students from colleges and schools have rallied around and stretched themselves to support hapless and grieving families. It is heart-warming to see the number of young people who are at the forefront of many such novel and innovative initiatives that are binding communities back together.
We have been fortunate to get the opportunity of working closely with young people and their families, and gather collective wisdom in these tumultuous times. We have understood that although the immediate future looks uncertain and bleak, and deprives us of hope, there are other anchors that we can seek to steady ourselves. For instance, there could be a conscious effort to reconnect with memories and meaning, to have faith in our values and vision, to learn how to take one day at a time and enjoy the small gifts of life. This can be done collaboratively, as long as there is a safe space for listening, empathy, mutual respect and trust; and it may take a while to, mindfully, build such a space at home. Young people can be willing partners in the creation of strategies and novel ways of connecting to the world around us, and the resultant sense of agency and purpose can be protective and healing for them.
I believe this pandemic has challenged our worldview and belief systems in profound ways, and has provided us a chance to rethink our lives and priorities. It has exposed the fault-lines of our polarised and bigoted world, and shaken us out of the stupor that prevents us from acknowledging what we have done to our earth and environment. But most of all, it has made us reconsider how we might want to influence our younger generation and empower them to take decisions to protect our future world. Needless to say, their mental health and well-being will be central in shaping the choices they make. The question is, how much of our mind-space and resources are we willing to invest in order to secure their future and save our world?
Dr Amit Sen is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, and Director & Co-founder of Children First