Among the 15 to 24-year-olds in India, one out of seven often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things, according to a new report by UNICEF which warned that COVID-19 pandemic can impact the mental health and well-being of children and youth for years.
A survey conducted by UNICEF and Gallup in early 2021 with 20,000 children and adults in 21 countries found that the young in India seem reticent to seek support for mental stress.
"Only 41 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds in India said it is good to get support for mental health problems, compared to an average of 83 per cent for 21 countries," the State of the World's Children 2021 report stated.
India was the only one of 21 countries where a minority of young people felt that people experiencing mental health issues should reach out to others. In every other country, a majority of the young people (ranging from 56 to 95 per cent) felt that reaching out was the best way to deal with mental health issues.
According to the report, in which Unicef took a look at the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers in the 21st century, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on children's mental health.
The survey also found that around 14 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds in India, or around one in seven, reported often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things.
The proportion ranged from almost one in three in Cameroon, one in seven in India and Bangladesh, to as low as one in 10 in Ethiopia and Japan. Across 21 countries, the median was one in five young people, the report said.
It noted that through the pandemic, children have had limited access to support from social services due to lockdown measures. Disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people afraid, angry and concerned for their future.
"Children in India have been through a challenging time living through the risks and restrictions posed by the pandemic. Nothing could have prepared them for the onslaught of the second wave of the pandemic that hit India earlier this year.
"They witnessed suffering and uncertainties that no child should have to see. Being away from family, friends, classrooms and play caused isolation and anxiety. Children have not only been living an emotional tragedy, but many are also at a higher risk of neglect and abuse," said UNICEF India Representative Dr Yasmin Ali Haque.
The report noted that even before the COVID-19 crisis, children and young people carried the burden of mental health conditions without significant investment in addressing them.
According to the latest available estimates, more than one in seven adolescents aged 10-19 is estimated to live with a diagnosed mental disorder globally. Of these, South Asia had the highest number of adolescents with mental disorders.
The Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2019 stated that at least 50 million children in India were affected by mental health issues with 80 to 90 per cent not having sought support.
Wide gaps persist between mental health needs and mental health funding. India has spent only 0.05 per cent of its health budget on mental health, according to the journal in 2017.
While the impact on children's lives is incalculable, the economic loss due to mental health conditions between 2012-2030 is estimated to be USD 1.03 trillion in India, according to WHO 2020.
The Unicef report notes that genetics, experience and environmental factors from the earliest days, including parenting, schooling, quality of relationships, exposure to violence or abuse, discrimination, poverty, humanitarian crises, and health emergencies such as COVID-19, all shape children's mental health.
While protective factors, such as loving caregivers, safe school environments, and positive peer relationships can help reduce the risk of mental disorders, the report warns that barriers, including stigma and lack of funding, are preventing too many children from experiencing positive mental health.
The State of the World's Children, 2021, calls on governments, and public and private sector partners to promote mental health for all children, adolescents and caregivers, protect those in need of help, and care for the most vulnerable.
"In India, we need to break the stigma of talking about mental health and seeking support so that children can have better life outcomes. We must change the way we view mental health," Dr Yasmin Haque said.
For children who are isolated and traumatized, it must be made sure that there is a better understanding to maximize every child's potential, the report added.
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