“Asatoma satgamaya, Tamasoma jyotirgamaya” – literally translated means ‘take me from untruth to truth, take me from darkness to light’. These words are taken from the Brihadaranayaka Upanishad, one of the principle scriptures in Hinduism, and verbalise a plea from a student to a teacher (a guru). In India today, access to information is taken for granted with the prevalence of technology, but access to quality education remains a great concern. In 2018, gross secondary education enrolment in the country stood at 75.16%, while gross tertiary education (ages 18-22) enrolment was only 28.06% . While these statistics are staggering, the teaching of mental health is insignificant in comparison; both in terms of outreach and quality. Perhaps taking a different approach to mental health education will help us make the right kind of difference.
There is great value in learning the theory of mental health and wellness, but perhaps even greater value in understanding its practical reality. The subject of mental health has remained in the shadows alongside people who have lived experiences and struggles with it; what if we bring them out of the darkness and introduce them to our youth?
Through ‘contact based education’ we can allow students to see the wide spectrum of mental health and the positivity of seeking help by connecting with the living human rather than the imagined demon.
The lack of quality mental health education is particularly concerning in the younger age categories because we see a maximum number of issues emerge from this group. India has the greatest proportion of young people (below 24 years of age) in the world who account for approximately 45.27% of the total population. Several studies indicate about 50% of all mental health issues emerge prior to the age of 18 and up to 75% by the age of 25 . Suicide is also the leading cause of death in the 15-29 age group and between 10-20% of children and adolescents suffer from mental health struggles. The motive to introduce the subject at an early age is well grounded in these numbers.
This demand creates an enormous strain on our mental healthcare professionals, and thus, most efforts are targeted towards addressing mental illnesses rather than preventing them from becoming worse in the first place. We can begin to alleviate this by introducing mental health literacy at an early stage and empowering young people with knowledge. This allows communities to reduce stigma, increase acceptance, and promote help-seeking behaviour. There is already a huge gap in mental health awareness amongst the youth. Several studies have shown that less than a third of school and college going individuals were able to identify mental illness and even fewer recognize where and when to seek help. To bridge this gap, it’s important to understand how young people primarily learn about mental health today, why it’s problematic, and how contact based education can build a strong foundation for future generations.
There are several movies that address mental health issues; 15 Park Avenue, Chicchore, Taxi Driver, As Good As It Gets, and Silver Linings Playbook come to mind. Social media is also rife with posts about mental health that are bite-sized and nested in visually appealing packages, making it easy to digest. Both approaches, however, have severe limitations. A movie tends to focus on the extreme ends of the spectrum by amplifying the more dramatic aspects of mental health, and social media runs the risk of providing partial information that is taken out of context. As a result, they can lead us down a dangerous path of deepening stigma and delaying help-seeking.
Contact based education finds an interesting balance between the full-meals of movies and the bite-sizes of social media. It can be a powerful medium that doesn’t venture to the dramatic ends of the mental health spectrum yet introduces reality within its true context; all in a session that lasts less than the length of a school period. We invite people who have battled lived experiences with mental health to share their personal journeys and talk about how they sought help when they needed it. First, it’s important to set the stage with a professional understanding of mental health issues so students know what to expect. This allows for a sense of empathy to take root and for the session to be much more powerful. A conversation takes place, and hopefully, a connection is formed. When a student is able to relate to another as a human being, it can have a profound impact on their perception about mental health. It allows them to develop more nuanced views about their struggles and understand what real life progress looks like. The importance and positivity of help-seeking gets magnified.
Rather than passively listening to theoretical and didactic lectures, contact based education offers the ‘practical’ side of mental health education. This is no different from how we teach the sciences today; experiencing something has an impact that reading cannot replace. This is essential for schools and families to understand when concerns are raised about this style of teaching. However, we have realized that when schools recognize the importance of a subject and its method of delivery, it is rare for parents to object.
Almost half of India’s population is statistically vulnerable to mental health issues, our healthcare has a huge deficit in meeting this demand, and our education system on the subject is weak at best. While our road ahead is long, and perhaps winding, we have an opportunity to use the power of lived experiences to create a breakthrough. With contact based education we can reduce stigma, increase knowledge, and encourage help-seeking, and perhaps, begin to address our system holistically.
If you are struggling with your mental health or know someone who is, please consider seeking out professional help. If you are an educator, consider the power of contact based education and introduce your students to a person with lived experiences with the support of mental health professionals first setting the stage. Help break the stigma. Beyond creating a sense of empathy, maybe it can also give young people the courage to step away from the shadows themselves. A courage that may slowly become the norm, and remove the need to rewrite these articles for our future generations.
- UNESCO. UNESCO Data for the Sustainable Developmental Goals - India [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2020 Sep 6]. Available from: http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/in?theme=education-and-literacy
- Kessler RC, Amminger GP, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Alonso J, Lee S, Üstün TB. Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature. Curr Opin Psychiatry [Internet]. 2007 Jul [cited 2020 Mar 9];20(4):359–64. Available from: http://journals.lww.com/00001504-200707000-00010