Eighteen. In India that’s the age when you are expected to figure out what you will study, and towards what career. For a lot of eighteen-year-olds, the twelfth grade can be a harrowing time, and their mental health can be severely compromised. Crippling anxiety and nervous breakdowns are not uncommon. Overwhelmed by anxiety, a child can sink into depression and just give up on the board exams. Every year, more children come for consultation in February-March for help with exam tension, inability to concentrate or to remember, crying spells, violent temper losses, and insomnia.
For many families in our country, quality of life in the future - as they envisage it - rides on their child’s 12th grade results. But it’s important for them to remember that the child has his own fears. They should not push him to the brink by adding to his anxieties. In fact, they need to be his support system. Hardly a day goes by without a news report of a teen suicide during the final exam season in India.
To a family without much money, where parents draw modest salaries and retirement is imminent, the prospect of their 18-year-old being able to take up a part of the financial burden within 4-5 years is a relief. Our Indian system thus works very well for a large section of society. The 18-year-old appears for various entrance exams and takes up whatever course he gains admission to. For the next four years he stoically works towards finishing the course with good grades, rarely questioning whether he likes what he is doing. That luxury is not available to him.
But what if you do have the luxury of choice? You need to go back in time and think: What do I really like? To make a choice you need to have information, both about available courses and colleges, and about your inner self. A parent, teacher or counsellor may help as a sounding board and give you broad guidelines, but that’s it. What is meaningful to you, and how it can be a source of income, is something only you can figure out.
Choosing an unusual career is fine if you have enormous talent, because not reaching the top of the heap almost constitutes failure, e.g. professional sports. Youngsters who come for a consultation under these circumstances are burnt out. Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion, diminished interest, cynicism and inefficacy. The opposite of burnout is engagement, which is characterized by energy, involvement and efficacy. Ideally, a chosen career should be engaging.
In the Indian context, you need to convince parents about your choice as they are funding your education. For instance, you have wonderful grades in Math and Physics, but choose to study Journalism instead of Engineering. It is generally accepted that you will get a job and earn well from the day you graduate with a B.E. from an IIT, and that’s what they want you to try for. Why Journalism? They need an answer. And it really doesn’t help to lash out at your family for ‘not understanding’ you. In many parts of the world, more so in our country, STEM-related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) are considered the safest bet in terms of employability, and software engineers are perceived as earning well. This is a tough situation, and the mental armwrestling can be protracted and end in acrimony. This is the reality facing many kids today.
Though it appears a practical way to take a decision, it damages youngsters’ sense of self, their confidence, their optimism, their pleasure in exploring life – in short, it jeopardizes their mental health. Youngsters who have been forced by circumstances to enroll in courses not suited to their inclinations often come for consultation when they accumulate a lot of ‘backs’, or the backlog of exams they have not been able to pass over the years. They don’t have alternatives to finishing the course they are in, so they soldier on, deeply unhappy, hoping that things will improve after graduation, at least in terms of a job and pay packet.
People who feel like square pegs in round holes have fragile identities and often come for consultation with questions like “Who am I?” or complaints like “I think I have a memory problem”. They are usually in the middle of a professional or vocational course that doesn’t interest them, but a degree/diploma in which can eventually get them a job. They find it hard to absorb their course material and often wonder if they are stupid, adding to their sense of failure and confusion about who they really are, and what they really want. This sort of depression is often masked because people sometimes don’t even realise how much they have adjusted to their diffficult circumstances, and how far they have moved from their real selves.
According to educationists, the goal of education is to develop your authentic self, apart from developing your intellectual capabilities. To be authentic, you need to develop these three qualities: autonomy, integrity and harmony. Autonomy makes you an independent thinker, integrity makes clear, coherent thinking possible, and harmony keeps your thoughts and feelings aligned so there is no dissonance between the two, and you are at peace with yourself and the world. In existential philosophy, being authentic is the degree to which you remain true to yourself despite external pressures. The discourse on education in India is leading in this direction right now, but it will be a long time before it enters the mainstream.
At present, however, education for a large majority is only about finding employment to support their families and repay loans. And these youngsters are highly unlikely to worry about authenticity and the higher need for self-actualization until their basic needs are met, as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains. Some spunky kids have broken out of the mold and are blazing a trail for the more timid ones and, hopefully, in the near future kids won’t have to barter their mental health for education.
Dr Shyamala Vatsa is a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who has been practicing for over twenty years. If you have any comments or queries you would like to share, please write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org