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India Is Facing A Youth Suicide Crisis. What Do We Know And What Can We Do?

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TW: The article addresses suicide.

Last week saw people coming together from all walks of life on October 10, World Mental Health Day. The theme for this year was ‘suicide prevention’, which is definitely something that India needs to work on. India has the highest suicide rate in the world for youth between the 15-29 age group. Add to this another angle: the suicide rate among those with more education is higher than those with little or no education. In India, the people with a background of higher education form a minuscule 4.5% of the total population, a majority of whom are the youth, and thus, the highest risk-bearing group.

Globally, the countries that have registered a fall in suicide rates have shown better diagnosis and treatment of mental health. Dola Patel, a Mental Health Practitioner in Georgia, USA, expressed her shock to me over India’s mental illness ‘pandemic’. One way to understand this is, of course, the demography, particularly the size of India’s population.

Most people aren’t able to access mental health services, and the taboo is strong and widespread. “People are afraid to confide even with a doctor that they are suffering from mental illnesses. ‘Who will marry them if the news is to come out that they had been seeking the help of a counselor or psychiatrist?’ is something that many Indian families think of when it comes to a young individual with mental health issues,” she said.

The brain is simply a part of the body, like the liver or cornea or spine. Just like people have diabetes or high cholesterol, they might have mental health problems too. Talking about them should not indict shame or else, India will continue to have such large numbers of people who are not in the best of their mental health and suffering silently,” Dola reiterated.

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However, unlike her colleges and universities in the USA, India does not have a uniform policy that makes it compulsory for educational institutions to keep a trained counselor among its regular staff to address students’ needs.

Although the Indian higher education system is the third-largest in the world, after the US and China. But, the expansion in the number of colleges and universities has not ensured quality education and funding. The floundering Indian economy which is failing to provide employment to the youth with higher education is a source of constant stress for the hopeful young graduates who thought that investing in higher education was a sure-shot ticket to success, stability, and secure life.

Today, the privatisation of education, arbitrary hikes in tuition fees along with the withdrawal of scholarships have made students feel helpless, if not hostile, and led to protests. Even ‘liberal’ spaces like Tata Institute Of Social Sciences (TISS) had to face the wrath of students who went on strikes in all four of their campuses when financial support to economically weaker students was withdrawn, for some in the middle of their courses!

Sonu (name changed), a Psychology Masters student at TISS-BALM, mentioned that even the off-campus centre in Chennai, whose name itself contains ‘Leadership in Mental Health’, does not have an official mental health counselor. But, the need for one is urgent. “One of the major issues that many students face is ‘alienation’. Most students here are from different parts of the country, struggling every day in a different place, climate, food, and peers. This adjustment to new environments along with the ever-growing work pressure takes a toll on mental health,” she said.

If they find nobody to talk to, they feel ‘alienated’ and often resort to addictions of all sorts–ranging from online gaming to substance abuse. The uncertainty that the future brings adds a certain ‘meaningless’ to their lives,” Sonu told me, adding that this leaves them “emotionally vulnerable, desperate and restless. Most of them do not have the means to deal with the stress, anxiety, and depression such environments can create. That is why mental health practitioners for students are required.” Sonu went on to add that “For Ph.D. research scholars it’s even a lonelier journey as they do not even have classmates to share their problems or progress with.”

Although many colleges and universities pledge to have an amiable environment and encourage students to share their problems with their teachers, and for teachers to mentor their students, it is not the most ideal arrangement, as counseling needs to be a separate and independent space, where the profiles of a ‘student’ and ‘client’ do not overlap, if they happen to be the same person.

The government also needs to realise and rectify its policies that have financially starved students by reducing their scholarships or not capping fees in private institutions. These policies definitely exacerbate the frustrations of an already stressed Indian youth.

Because of things not in their control, like the government’s interest in the mental health of its scholars, it will end up extinguishing the fire of inquisitiveness in their mind, along with the burdens they already face, like living away from family, peer pressure, feeling isolated, broken relationships, unmet aspirations, an uncertain future, and for just being a young person in India.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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    year after year production of poor quality candidates took place

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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