'Feeling happy and stress-free', 'managing emotions' and 'feeling a sense of mastery over life's challenges'. These were some of the responses we got from a large-scale survey we conducted among college-going youth in which we asked them to come up with personal meanings of being mentally healthy. These perspectives of the youth we interviewed are somewhat similar to the scientific conceptualization of mental health.
Youth form a very significant proportion of the Indian population. Mental health concerns of the youth deserve special attention for several reasons. They are in a phase of life that is rich with potential, and that is marked by vulnerabilities. The onset of a large proportion of mental health problems is before 24 years of age. But it is a sad observation that only a small proportion of individuals who need professional help actually seek or receive it. This gap is due to many factors such as lack of awareness, ambivalence, stigma and the lack of easy access to professional services.
We also conducted a series of focus group discussions with youth pursuing graduation. These discussions elicited multiple causes of stress such as a significant sense of pressure and competition in academics, career as well as social spheres.
A high expectation of 'being stress-free all the time' can be a source of stress in itself, as it does not match the realities of the inevitable frustrations in daily life. Several youth voiced difficulties in 'emotionally connecting' with their parents and teachers about the challenges that their social world poses. The frustration of 'not being understood' was a recurrent theme that emerged in youth discussions on mental health. The other issues that affect a sizeable number of urban youth in colleges are to do with migration from smaller towns to the culture of a metropolitan city and the experience of alienation, especially in the initial phase of adaptation. Despite all this, youth discussions were characterized by enthusiasm and optimism about their collective capacity to adapt and to change.
Youth are increasingly recognizing that talking about their mental health issues does not necessarily mean that one is weak or that one has a severe mental health condition. In our observations, some of the common concerns for which urban youth seek professional help are 'grappling with depression and turmoil in the context of close relationships', 'confusion about career goals' and 'anxiety in social situations'.
When youth reach out to seek support, friends often become one of the first lines of support. This has multiple implications. Firstly, youth can be helped to hone their skills in providing support to peers who may be psychologically distressed. Secondly, youth can be helped to view support from friends as well as support from a professional as complementing each other rather than as substitutes of the other. Lastly, youth can play a very powerful role in fighting stigma that surrounds mental health issues in our society. We end up dampening the energy, initiatives and engagement of youth with mental health issues when we treat them as passive recipients of information or instruction, rather than as active collaborators in bringing about positive social changes.
Youth have tremendous potential to empower themselves and their peers with knowledge and skills that can help in prevention or early detection of mental health problems as well as promotion of mental health. Youth Pro, an initiative of the department of clinical psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, is a testimony to the powerful role that youth can play in mental health promotion.
Dr Seema Mehrotra is additional professor of clinical psychology at NIMHANS. She coordinates activities of the positive psychology unit in her department, which revolve around mental health promotion research, service and training, with a special focus on youth.