Building A Case for Youth Mental Health Policy in India
Burnout, stress, anxiety, depression are all words that gained rapid presence during the pandemic. Widespread death and illness was supplemented by forced isolations, closure of schools and colleges, unemployment, job freezes, etc. For many individuals it became the first time they actively engaged with topics like mental health. However, as we leave memories of the pandemic behind, it is pertinent to not lose ground of the progress achieved in the case of mental health and initiate discourse about it.
This remains especially true for the sizable youth population that India hosts. According to data from the International Labour Organization, approximately 66% of the total population is under 35 years of age (Decent Work for Youth in India, 2012). As a country, India depends on these young shoulders to become the wheels of its growth. A young productive workforce is one of our biggest edge over many other nations. However, how much can young people truly contribute to the nation’s health, especially if they themselves aren’t healthy? If the youth is to be expected to perform as productive members of society, it is imperative that their mental health is prioritized.
This article analyzes the existing mental health and youth policies in the country and proposes a separate Youth Mental Health Policy as a pertinent measure to protect the youth of India. This article defines youth as those between the ages of 15 – 29 years, as described by the National Youth Policy, 2014.
The current mental health policy paradigm in India consists of majorly National Mental Health Policy (NMHP), 2024, certain provisions of the draft National Youth Policy (D-NYP), 2021, as well as the National Health Policy (NHP), 2017. Cumulatively, their strategies revolve around curriculum development, life-skills education, teacher-training, increasing extracurricular activities, provision of school health ambassadors and creating a common platform to bring together youth organizations.
However, despite the wide array of policies on the issue, a glaring shortcoming in all of them is their uniform nature. According to World Health Organization, the taxonomy of policies, especially those relating to suicide prevention, falls under three headings – Uniform, Selective and Indicated Prevention. Uniform measures are projected towards all those included in the target demography, selective interventions are targeted to those who are especially vulnerable or “at – risk’ of suicide while indictive measures target those already exhibiting suicidal behaviour
such as suicide ideation or attempts (World Health Organization, 2018).
The NHP and NMHP are uniform policy documents, catering to all sections of the population at the same time, with little demarcation if any. Even the D-NYP, a document specifically for the youth, considers all those falling between the ages of 15 – 29 years as one homogenized group. Rather, I would like to argue that this age group includes persons in differing stages of life like school children, college students and graduates, young professionals entering the workforce and those in their late 20s within them. Each stage is associated with varying causes of stress, different experiences and needs that are subjective to their context. When referring to ‘youth’, policies in India often remain limited to school and college students and indeed, do include measures for them. However, it cannot be denied that there are many older age groups, not currently in education, that are also classified as ‘youth’. It is these populations that this article stresses on.
There is a general orientation in the current strategies employed to utilize educational institutions as primary centers of outreach and distribution. However, in doing so, all those who are not inside such institutional boundaries remain excluded. Therefore, I argue that the mentioned provisions can classify as selective measures towards 15 – 19 and 19 – 23 years. Now, the need of the hour is to expand our policies to provide similar protection to those between the ages of 24 – 29. There is a necessity for further stratification among the various ages that are included within the ‘youth’. Only when the various specific target groups have been identified, can one expect to look after their welfare.
For eg. The Draft National Youth Policy defines Not in Employment, Education and Training (NEET) as a category of individuals ‘who do not have access to education and those that drop out of the system’. Consequently, the measures provided also relate to their re-entry in the system through school and college schemes as well as distance learning programs. However, NEET in India consists of at least one more set of individuals, who neither lack access nor have they dropped out. Rather, they constitute the lakhs of young people who sit for competitive exams, every year. Due to low employment options, very few of them actually get selected. A report by the Indian Express states that out of the 22.05 crore who applied for different Central government departments from 2014-15 to 2021-22, only 0.33% actually got recommended (Sharma, 2022). Similarly, lakhs also sit for post-secondary exams like Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET), etc. Their unemployment status and lack of institutional support reduces their social capital, exemplifying their vulnerability.
It is widely accepted that the race for clearing these exams poses a great level of stress, anxiety and pressure on the applicants and can have detrimental effects on their mental health (Gull et al., 2023). While current student aspirants can still be reached out to through their educational institutions, it is those who take gap years to prepare, covering ages 20-30, who make up a dispersed and stratified population Due to their rigorous study schedules, the majority of them are also not involved in youth organizations or NGOs. Despite these factors, one cannot ignore the unrealized potential they signify. Therefore, targeted measures to promote, spread relevant information and create awareness for mental health through means applicable to their context are the need of the hour. Efforts to reach out to them can be made through measures like providing mental health guides should be made available on official exam websites, along with other guidelines, as these are frequented by applicants. The use of age-stratified data, collected from exam registration details can also be made to plan action.
Secondly, out of all major mental health policies, only the NMHP talks about workplace programmes to help adults avoid stress. A survey by Deloitte, published in Sept. 2022, found that 80% of the Indian workforce reported to have mental health issues, while 47% consider work – place related stress as a major factor affecting their mental health. Many young professionals, just entering the workforce, find it difficult to manage the change from college to work and often feel unable to keep up with the competition. Thus, provisions on workplace stress relief assistance require more support and visibility, especially through age and work experience specific help. Their implementation is crucial for preventing India’s productive workforce from experiencing burnouts.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt opined, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future”. India’s young demography is expected to pave the way for global power. However, if the same youth remains limited due to their mental health, the future looks bleak.
Moreover, the mere existence of provisions for some young age groups in the policy sphere does not justify leaving the rest behind. Sustainable growth rests on the pillars of inclusivity.
Protecting only a few is a sure – shot formula for creating cracks in our societal fabric. If India wants to optimize its youth potential, it is high time that it starts focusing on well – being and mental health for all.