Published: 27th March 2021
There's a denial of opportunities that fit the aspirations of India's millennials: Harvard Medical School Prof Vikram Patel at ThinkEdu
Professor Patel was speaking at the New Indian Express' ThinkEdu Conclave 2021 on Saturday along with senior journalist and author Kaveree Bamzai
The fact that most young people's mental health issues are not just related to some kind of biological, medical or psychiatric disorder but it has got to do with social issues — especially the denial of opportunities that fit the aspirations of India's millennials - is what is driving them towards depression and ultimately in resorting to the drastic step of killing themselves, said Vikram Patel, who is the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health in the Blavatnik Institute's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Professor Patel was speaking at The New Indian Express' ThinkEdu Conclave 2021 on Saturday along with senior journalist and author Kaveree Bamzai. This year's ThinkEdu Conclave is being conducted online from March 26 to March 30, 2021.
Speaking on mental health, considered to be the other pandemic plaguing the country and the world, Professor Patel stated that Indian youth's aspirations are totally different from their parents and are "shaped by India's economic development story, shaped by globalisation and of course by social media. We have this generation of India's youth who have different aspirations from their parents, grandparents - there is a real battle about whose aspirations are going to prevail. And in that battle right now the emergence of orthodox values about young people's sexuality, their right to choose who they love and live with is at the forefront, which is driving many young people to become depressed and ultimately to kill themselves." He further added that India has an evident crisis of young people's mental health as they are killing themselves in epic numbers - youth suicide rates have been steadily going up, as the government data suggests. "We have no policy response to it, we have a national mental health policy but there's hardly any recognition of the deferring needs of young people and the rest of the population," Professor Patel added.
And the pandemic has amplified these issues. "Those who have no voice have had no place at the table during the pandemic," said Professor Patel, emphasising the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on young children who have lost a year of socialising, playing and academics. "Children's voices have been completely blanked out, yet we have taken away from them the single most important sector for their development — their schools. We reduced schools to just places of learning and we assumed that all of India's kids have access to remote learning opportunities. It's mindboggling, to say the least," he stated.
During the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, there have been numerous reports of increasing domestic violence, physical, psychological abuse across Indian families. Explaining how such factors can be determined with proper data, Professor Patel said, "One of the real problems with the pandemic now is how little reliable data there is on all of these consequences of the pandemic and the lockdown. What we rely on isn't really the kind of data that can easily generalise the whole country — qualitative studies, focused deep dives, individual narratives of their experiences, etc, I don't know to which extent we can generalise this, but those stories certainly speak about the vulnerabilities of women who were already vulnerable in relationships where spousal violence has increased dramatically. The vulnerabilities of children living in those families have more exposure to violence and now children are trapped at home. School is often an escape, to get away from difficult home environments. All of this is a lot of qualitative data that I think speaks to the reports. If I had to look at quantitative data, we have some from other countries, such as in the US, where we now have robust quantitative data that is showing without any doubt that mortality, which is the hard outcome, which we are all concerned with, has risen in the last year due to suicide and substance abuse. This is a very dangerous trend in the US, it is being attributed, clearly indicating there is a crisis of mental health in the US that is playing itself out. Our data systems in India are nowhere near as real-time as the one in the US, we will probably only know what the impact has been in the last year perhaps in a year from now."
Responding to Kaveree's query on how intervention to prevent psychological or physical abuse in a family at an early stage is integral, Professor Patel added, "Right now our state policy is very reactive, we wait for the violence to occur and then we wait for the woman who is affected to find a way around that. And in a patriarchal society like ours, we know that actually the vast majority of women neither seek that kind of help. Solutions you are offering them to criminalise their male partner or get them to leave homes are really acceptable to a very small fraction of women in our country. I strongly believe we do need to look at primary prevention, which is to prevent violence from occurring in the first place and have good legislative instruments for that. Currently, they are very punitive. Why do we not use the opportunity when couples register to get married to require them to actually have an intense deep-dive into how to live with someone else? Let's not forget for a significant majority who are going to get married in India, the first encounter of living with someone in a romantic relationship and being to create a new family for themselves will happen on the night of their marriage and it is like there's no preparation. Their parents don't teach them, school education isn't enough, they have no knowledge. This could be such an exciting and preventative intervention not just to prevent domestic violence but to promote mental well-being for both young women and men who are about to get married."
Finally, speaking about what the pandemic has shown us significantly, the professor added that it exposed the already prevalent deep class divisions existent in this country for decades. "The degree of callousness that was displayed by the upper and middle classes, left me completely stunned. The division has also woken up our country to realising how callous, selfish and uncaring the upper classes are. When it comes to the crunch India's poor and marginalised are on their own, they are not going to be standing out for them. I believe that we don't have a national identity, what happened before and after lockdown is vivid proof that we only stood for ourselves and our particular class," he concluded.