New Delhi: Many of the countries that are home to the world’s 1·8 billion adolescents are poorly equipped to address their mental health needs, with less than 50 per cent setting up mental health policies.
These troubling figures from Aiding Adolescents in Distress, the latest report by the medical journal Lancet, set the tone on the opening day of the International Association of Adolescent Health’s 11th World Congress. The theme of this congress is ‘Investing in Adolescent Health – the Future is Now’.
With 253 million adolescents, India is home to a majority of this demographic, a fact that places it at an advantage over other countries like China.
“Adolescents are not written into the budget lines of any government, but India has done so and this is impressive”, said Dr Antino Costello, Department Head of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health at the World Health Organisation, one of the keynote speakers.
“The nationwide program, Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), is an imaginative one and could help achieve many milestones in adolescent health”.
The presence of over 50 state government representatives at this congress is a sign of the growing importance being given to this vulnerable age group.
“We have made a good case for adolescent interventions,” said Dr Sunil Mehra, Executive Director, Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child, which is organising the event. “Now we have to push this forward and mainstream it, which will be a challenge”.
Experts point to a need for interventions at multiple levels to address the specific concerns of the 10-24 years age group. They say that adopting a clinical, disease-focused approach is all wrong.
“This demographic dividend makes no sense unless we understand the aspirations of young people,” said Dr Vikram Patel, Professor, Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University and co-founder of Sangath, an NGO that works in the field of developmental disorders and mental health.
“There is a clash between social norms and the aspirations of the youth when it comes to matters like choice of career or partner, and this leads often to stress.”
Dr Patel advocates a creative approach, one that involves reaching out to both adolescents and parents from an early age at multiple levels – school, community, digital, family and society. “We have to recognise that care for adolescents requires specific interventions that involve parents,” said Dr Patel.
It’s a method that Sangath has adopted in many of its programs at Delhi, Goa and Bihar with successful results by training community health workers to deliver psychological therapy to help people with autism, depression and other mental health issues.
“We have a 100 million young people looking for jobs,” points out Dr Patel. “We should see this as an opportunity to train them to do this work and deliver personalized care and attention to people in distress”.