Higher Education and mental health challenges of youth in India
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Higher Education and mental health challenges of youth in India


The crisis of mental health among youth the world over came to the fore during the pandemic because of widescale social isolation and a significant decline in well-being among the youth (Ford & Freund 2022). However, even after the pandemic has waned since 2022, the mental health challenges of youth have not receded (Hamilton 2023). Of course, the pandemic has only added to the existing stressors that young people face tremendous pressures to succeed, digital technology and social media, climate change, racial-caste-gender-religious inequalities, poverty, and violence (ibid.).

Ford and Freund (2022) further emphasize that up to 75% of mental health issues get triggered during the adolescent and youth phase, and thus it is imperative to focus on this age group to address the larger mental health crises in the society. In the Indian context, education forms a big aspect in the lives of adolescents and youth – both those who can continue their education and those who end up dropping out for various reasons.

Education is seen as one of the most central means through which youth can not only find their interests and work in future but also shape a well-rounded personality to engage with the challenges of transitioning into adulthood. Also, educational institutions provide us with a good space to pilot and then formalize a few mental health interventions for youth, which would otherwise be challenging to implement in an informal setting like within a family or community.

Thus, in this article, I am going to focus on the mental health challenges of youth in higher educational contexts in India, especially first-generation students, as well as what can be done to deal with these challenges.

Read More: Academic Pressure on Higher Studies and its Impact on Students Mental Health

Youth and Higher Education

A study done in 2021 by Lokniti-CSDS in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung showed an interesting shift in trend among the youth in India. Among the 6,277 youth who were interviewed between the ages of 15 and 34 across 18 states in July-August 2021, 39% of them identified themselves as students (Kumar et al 2021). Although not all of these would be in higher educational institutions (HEIs) but this trend corresponds to the increasing enrollment (GER) in higher education in India, which has increased dramatically in the past three decades, from around 5.9% in 1990 to 27.3% in 2021 (MHRD 2021, Varghese & Malik 2015).

If we focus more specifically on the age group of 18-24 years then almost half of them are studying, with the aspiration that higher education will bring both social mobility as well as better chances of formal employment, in which government jobs are still preferred more than other options (Kumar et al 2021). This trend is only going to continue as we are observing the GER improving quickly as more and more first-generation students are able to access higher education due to expanded reservation quotas in public institutions and affirmative action in some private ones. Thus, HEIs are going to play an increasingly more important role in shaping the early adulthood life for a large chunk of our youth and consequently have a positive or negative impact on their mental health too.

Unfortunately, if we merely skim through the recent news on what is happening in HELs, we see quite a few disturbing events unfolding, both in HEIs and allied spaces like coaching centres. Whether it is the death of Dalit students in IITs (Aswani 2023), or medical students in Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country (Chakraborty 2023) or students preparing for competitive exams in Kota (Sen 2023), we see a disturbing trend of increasing academic pressure, social isolation, distress, and suicides.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) also show a worrying picture in its 2020 data a student died by suicide every 42 minutes, or 34 students did so per day. 11,396 youngsters under the age of 18 died by suicide in the same year (Sen 2023). Of course, young people are also facing such challenges outside of HEls, like the recent cases of young women dying by suicides in Barmer (Rajasthan), primarily due to caste and gender violence like dowry demands, domestic violence, inter-caste relationships, etc. (Yadav 2023).

However, the hope is that with more youth getting into higher education as we saw in the trend above, they should ideally be able to conceive of a better future. Thus, it is highly imperative that HEIs play a substantive role in coming up with good exemplary models for supporting the mental health of young people, which can then be taken into communities and families too.

Higher Education and Mental Health

The new National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 and the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2023 have taken the right initiative in providing the important guidelines to “ensure the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of the students” with the provision of Student Services Center (SSC) and counsellors/trainers for both physical and mental well-being (UGC 2023). Apart from the provision of these centres, the guidelines also suggest to not responding too punitively in addressing students’ behaviour that can be seen as a deviation from norms as that can trigger mental health issues. There is also an emphasis on creating a vibrant culture in HEls that can provide plenty of opportunities for students to explore their inner calling.

Although these are good starting points for HEIs to start engaging with the mental health of young students proactively, one needs to go a bit deeper in understanding the challenges more specifically. While challenges like academic pressure, social isolation, intimate relationships, job anxiety, etc. affect most young people, there are certain specific difficulties that first-generation students face in HEIs. As they are the first person from their families, relatives and sometimes even the entire village, many times they don’t have the necessary social and cultural capital required to navigate the complexities of HEIs (Raj 2022).

English becomes a fundamental barrier in their academic development as many of them make a shift from a regional language to an English medium only after they finish schooling. To be able to speak their mind in class or outside becomes difficult as they compare themselves with other English-speaking classmates, resulting in loss of self-confidence and even self-esteem.

This results in further affects their academic performance as even if they have a good analysis of the academic topic, they are unable to communicate it well. “This makes first-generation learners spend half or sometimes more of their academic journey in self-doubt, because of the privileged idea of ‘merit, in addition to the learners’ systemically created lack of social and cultural capital “(ibid.).

Outside the class as well, whether it is co-curricular activities or socialization spaces, first-generation students face a sense of unbelonging, sometimes due to humiliating comments by their own classmates who question their ‘merit’ of even aspiring to come to an HEI. The cultural events on campus too can be quite alienating for these students as it may re-assert the hegemonic culture onto them without being inclusive of the marginalized cultures where they come from.

Read More: Strategies for Creating Positive Learning Environments in Classroom

All these factors combined create a hostile environment where first-generation students are unable to perform well in academics or in social-cultural spaces, resulting in a range of mental health issues to the extent of suicide contemplation. And then to even access counselling spaces requires a certain familiarity with the discourse of mental health and how to communicate what one is feeling in the language and jargon that is alien to them.

Thus, it is not enough to provide the infrastructure and facilities for mental health support (which is required as a first step) but also engage with the social-cultural- economic reasons for mental health issues, so as to create a positive academic and social environment for the youth to experience belongingness, inclusion, and equity.

The good news is that the first generations of students have already recognized these challenges and articulated responses and interventions across many HEI campuses in India. One of the most important steps they have taken is to create safe spaces within institutions where first-generation students can feel a sense of belonging and express themselves without fear of being ridiculed or humiliated.

These spaces run by Inclusion and Diversity clubs, Ambedkarite student associations, Indigenous student groups, Queer groups, etc. create an affirmation for the experiences of the students by focusing on including different “languages, food practices, sports, music, dance, literature, icons and leaders, festivals and other forms of cultural knowledge of various marginalized communities to create a space for socio-emotional flourishing (Siddiqui 2023).

Read More: Understanding and Supporting Neurodiversity in the Classroom

Similarly within the classroom too they work with the faculty to discuss strategies for overcoming the barriers to their academic growth by bringing different languages and cultures in the classroom as well. Critical pedagogy can play a crucial role where education is not seen as a one-way communication from teacher to student but as a dialogue where learning happens among all peers facilitated by the teacher.

Thus, what we can observe is mental health support for young students not only requires a top-down approach from HEls but also the facilitation of bottom-up approaches that young people themselves conceptualize and implement. By creating a culture of dialogue, inclusion, and equity, we can bring all the students on board to come up with holistic interventions that go beyond the imagination of providing one-to-one counselling. Creating an inclusive university culture that creates resilience among the youth, especially first-generation students, can become an exemplary model for even our families and communities to emulate in every social-cultural space.

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