One in 4 teenagers in India suffers from depression. And yet, we keep pretending this is not happening our own homes and schools.
Over the last five years, more than 40,000 students committed suicide in India. Last year itself, 8492 students committed suicide. One student commits suicide and yet, we keep pretending like today's teenagers are anything from fragile to obsessed about their looks -- each of these blame-games make diagnosis and treatment of teenage depression even more difficult.
Speaking at the India Today Conclave Mumbai 2019, moderator Soma Chowdhury gives the audience a few shocking numbers and mentions how Deepika Padukone's opening up about her depression opened up a very important discussion that goes beyond caste, class, language, or age.
Short film on teenage depression
Before the panel discussion begins a short film is showcased on teenage depression where three courageous youngsters explain what they really feel that accounts for depression and what happened in their lives to make them feel this way.
It showed how young students face a hoard of issues which are mostly normalised at first before it slowly progresses to take over their entire life. From relationship issues with friends and family, to academic pressure, bullying and a host of other factors that might seem 'small' to adults, the short film highlighted the mental landscape of these youngsters.
"I don't want people to be sad for me, I feel sad for myself enough. I just want people to understand," says one girl in the short film who chooses to remain anonymous.
The film ends with a list of suggestions for people to better identify teenage depression in the young people around them and clears a few common misconceptions:
- "People should educate themselves on what these disorders looks like."
- "Don't dismiss what you feel."
- "Trust in treatment."
- "It is not a phase, it isn't a trend, it isn't a fad."
- "Learn about these issues yourself and read about the experiences of other people."
- "We are not enjoying this, we are not capitalising to be edgy, or get popular. It is very real but it is not something we have much control over but we are trying to figure it out."
The Bell Jar: Teenage depression, first-person stories. And the national epidemic we are blind to #ConclaveMumbai19https://t.co/Q51IVpqZQxMumbai Tak (@mumbaitak) September 20, 2019
After the short film, Soma Chowdhury invites on stage young students Ambuj Sen Patra and Arshya Gaur, and one of India's leading child psychologists, Shelja Sen, who is also the co-founder of Children First.
What follows is a heart-wrenching discussion on all the factors that can make young children want to kill themselves and the blame game by adults which ignores the mental health issues of kids.
Here are their haunting stories on teenage depression and analysis about why we tend to keep ignoring their cries for help.
Ambuj Sen Patra, Student, 20
Ambuj is a student of psychology at Ambedkar University, a slam poet, a high achiever getting over 95% regularly, and got diagnosed with ADHD at the age of four - all this even though he is self-described "extrovert on steroids".
"I started self-harming since 11 and the trigger was academics. That has been a big part of the triggers throughout the years," he says.
"Being a high achieving student when you have had over 95% grade throughout your life, even getting a 90% seems like too much of drop. The entire world is telling you that you can do better, but suddenly you feel that I don't want to do better, I want to try out other things in life," he adds.
ADHD got the better of Ambuj when he was in military school at the age of 13-14. Organising things was an issue for him and at military schools organisation was a big deal. This resulted in him being blamed for everything going wrong in his batch.
"And that is where I think the first mega-mega negative spiral in my life happened," says Ambuj.
Why would cutting yourself make you feel better?
The 20-year-old psychology student explains that there are two factors leading to him cutting himself - one symptom of ADHD is impulsiveness which doesn't allow a person to understand what the consequences of his/her action can be.
The second factor for him is the constant punishment he faced at military school which always made him feel like he was not in control of his life. The chips were falling apart.
"Then you just want to feel in control, and pain is a very objective and intense emotion. If you are able to cause yourself pain, you feel, 'yes, this is something I am in control of'," he says.
"If a person expresses this urge and says they are not in control. It actually means that it's going in the direction of self harm. Stopping it there is really easy. Most people when they feel the urge to self-harm, they just need someone to talk to," Ambuj explains.
He adds that delaying someone at the edge of a psychological breakdown can lead to ultimately avoiding it as the person feels that at least someone is there to talk to.
Arshya Gaur, Student, 15
Fifteen-year-old Arshya is a super achiever -- a MUN debater, the head-girl of school in class 5, a national level soccer player who had been playing in the under-19 team when she was just 12 years old.
And yet, she struggles with self-esteem issues and depression. Arshya stopped eating and became so anorexic that her weight dropped to 29 kg. She passed out in school and was hospitalised.
Why did she stop eating?
"In Indian culture, a lot of love is expressed through food. And I grew up loving gulab jamun, rasgulla, puri aloo, and all the foods that all of us really love. I was a healthy child, even a little on the plump child. So doctors were always telling me - she is a healthy child but she could do with a kilo or two less."
As she was playing football in the under-19 team, she came in close contact with a lot of teenage girls - girls with good physique and boyfriends. Arshya wanted that as well.
"I used to see them eat a negligible amount for lunch but a lot of junk food. What I picked on was - they are not eating lunch, but they are still able to play. Why can't I do that? If they can look the way they are, even I can do that."
Thus, she stopped eating.
What was the main trigger?
It was during a trip to a sports camp that made Arshya start free-falling into depression. Her best friends pillaged through her school bag as she slept and took away her medicines and chewing gum.
Arshya spoke about how betrayal from friends hurt all the more when you go back 8-9 years of memories and good times together - and if the betrayal comes from a group of friends, the resulting trauma is multi-fold.
"Friendship has to be mutual. Only then can it be called friendship," she says.
Shelja Sen, Therapist, Writer, Co-founder, Children First
One of the biggest problems which prevents adults from reaching out to troubled children facing mental health issues is the perception that the problems faced by the youngsters are "too trivial", says Shelja Sen, one of the most reputed child psychologists and family therapists in India.
But fact remains that what is trivial for one person may be life-destroying for another - it all depends on the individual.
What is the lead cause of rising cases of teenage depression?
"If you see the common factor everywhere, it is a sense of loneliness, a sense of disconnection, a sense of not being accepted, of being judged, of somehow being on the outside," says Shelja.
She explains how this generation is the most connected through social media and the internet, but the sense of disconnection is highest.
"The numbers are staggering," she says on teenage suicides in India. "But the numbers do not show the suffering of young people."
"When you see these numbers, you think it is happening out there to somebody else. But it is happening in our schools, in our homes," she adds.
The teenage-blaming attitude that prevents diagnosis and treatment
Shelja says how everyone in the audience will know at least one person --adult or child-- who has gone through anxiety or depression. But we don't want to look at it.
"People will typically blame social media addiction or video gaming or say 'it's because they are so obsessed with their looks'," she says. One parent had even told her that "it is all because of Tinder".
"Teenagers are typically blamed - they are attention-seeking, they are weak, they are fragile," she says.
The feeling of lack of purpose in life
Another main point that haunts teenagers is a sense of a lack of purpose or meaning. "Young people ask me: What am I doing here? What are you doing here? Why do you do what you do?" she says.
The pressure to be perfect in today's age as a result of the bar society puts on youngsters in terms of academics, values and co-curricular activities is what breaks down the mental health.
"The problem is not them. Some children can cope with this pressure, some children cannot," Shelja says.
"The most vulnerable are the children who have some disability or neurodevelopmental difficulty, who have different sexual orientation, who have a different gender expression - who on the social hierarchy ladder, are very low. But we don't want to look at that. There is so much shame, stigma and silence around that," she adds.
The panel discussion at India Today Conclave Mumbai 2019 on teenage depression highlighted how the trigger incidents for different people are different.
It is an individual trauma and no two cases need to be exactly the same for us to become aware of what the signs of anxiety, self harm or depression look like in youngsters.
All we need to do is be aware and be vigilant to take care of India's future citizens.
Read: Awareness and acceptance can tackle mental health problems: Neerja Birla
Read: Experts explain the early signs of depression and the importance of therapy [Interview]
Read: India is the most depressed country in the world