By Sanaa Mehta
2020 has brought upon immense obstacles, almost creating a rollercoaster for people, with twists and turns that are unexpected. Every section of society and every individual has their respective struggles.There is one specific section of our society that has been impacted in a significant way: people living in systemic poverty in India, and particularly adolescents and children from these homes. I want to explore what mental wellbeing means and what triggers exist for children.
Mental wellbeing is about thoughts and emotions and the ability to cope with daily experiences, positive and negative. Change is a trigger. The components of a child’s mental wellbeing include having a healthy diet, exercise, freedom to play outdoors, having a well-connected support system, experiencing unconditional love and academic simulation. Lastly, having opportunities to channel passions, being resilient and sensing self-control over their own lives.
These are often not available for the children from marginalised communities, and the lockdown and COVID-19 are worsening it because, systemically, such components of life were already scarce. In a low-income home, children live and breathe the stress and frustration, which neglects the need for a stable support system and sense of self- control. Sangeeta Zombade, Director of the Khoj Community School, discusses how survival is an issue because many are in a “helpless state.” Minimum-wage earners are now depending on government-aid and NGO resources, which triggers a lack of dignity, worsening the mental conditions in the households where adults are frustrated and that comes down on children. Children must make friends but “not everyone has the opportunity to go out and socialise.” Parents need rest but kids need attention– they are craving companionship, freedom, and the outdoors.
Children from lower-income homes are not only stuck in a lockdown, but they do not have the resources to virtually engage in activities. They are robbed of their goals because of the financial crisis and frustration growing in their homes. Pessimism is evident. It is challenging to explain to children what this complex virus is, let-alone explain why their parents leave the house to go to the market or work for essentials and why they cannot leave at all. They feel trapped.
I am confident that you have encountered a plethora of statistics in the past few months: this fiscal year’s GDP will drop by 10.8%, we have reached about a 35% unemployment rate, 40 million may be subject to “abject poverty,” 2 billion globally. For some of us, this is frustrating, shocking, but we may not be experiencing the tangible nature of the losses. As a teenager in the midst of this pandemic, I know, first hand, the toll social isolation can have on us. I have spoken to cousins, friends who are extremely unhappy. But, I also know that I can tell them hey, why don’t you call me tonight and we can discuss what is going on? Have you tried meditating or writing down your thoughts? Talk to your parents and understand what is going on for all of you. I agree, this is a surface-level approach, but if you zoom out, it probably applies to the people I know. This is not to diminish the strain of lockdown on the supposedly more privileged sectors of society. It is undeniably challenging and unique to each individual.
253 million adolescents/children are currently in lockdown, stuck, unsure about their financial situations. Young girls and boys are victims of domestic violence. There is unpredictability with their families and the household proximity must be noted. Some of us are engaging in daily mental wellbeing routines, engaging in online Yoga or nightly skin-care routines. We can isolate ourselves from our parents if we are frustrated. And to the adult readers, you can see your children/yourself cooped up in a room to relax. What about the systemic methods for the underprivileged children? NGOs are reaching out, but this is a large-scale issue and a significant blockade is a lack of awareness and empathy. Namely, systemic violence is a suppressed issue where marginalized spaces by the government are built without enough consideration of wellbeing and access to facilities. The government is the most powerful because that is their ‘job’ to provide care. Authorities can take advantage of the vulnerability and silence such issues. Marginalisation has a horrible denotation so why is it being used as convenience here? An example is of domestic violence, a form of repression, but ignoring domestic violence is a form of the twofold repression.
Mental illnesses are going unrecognised; education opportunities are the first to be sacrificed. Stress is contagious. There is the population that cannot access masks and sanitizers nor basic medical equipment. Parents are leaving children behind, and orphans in the country are increasing, this sensation of neglect, to any extent, is damaging. Arguably, this is a decreased burden on parents, financially. But the collateral damage are the children: with a lack of hope, no choice nor an argumentative foundation, they are helpless and vulnerable.
Mr. Jyoti Sinha is the chairman and founder of SSS foundation in Patna, Bihar, a school I visited three years ago. The families are from one of the least privileged communities in India, the Musahar community. Mr Sinha talks about how the harvesting season (summer) was impacted as agricultural activities have been halted and wages have been adversely affected. There is an immense economic impact on this community due to COVID-19. Another aspect is the educational one; the school has been closed since mid-March. The school was in efforts to have them lead better lives and “that has been severely disrupted,” because education was “equipping these children” and “enabling them to get a better job” This is an emotional setback too. Mr Sinha believes that “In richer sections, children going to regular schools in urban areas are gradually moving to distance education, but, “Here there is no question of distance education.”
In many rural villages, the medical facilities have been impacted. There is typically a lacking mental health system but now physical health is compromised too. Both of these are critical in the development of children and adolescents. Parents are in deep debt and semi-urban workers are dependent on small shops, now shut down. A Class 9 graduate from a low-income home and started a small dhaba-type restaurant, but now has no income. Many parents and children are deprived of income– “there is no fallback position for them.” This young boy was using the education provided at the school but now is impacted financially, and mentally. “The real deprivation is not for us, it is for those with daily wages and their condition must be most miserable.” One could consider this a bold claim, but when looking at the stark changes in reality and the shackling poverty, it is evident that their livelihood has been crushed. There is a “very big, adverse impact of COVID-19 on the future and present of the majority of children in Indian communities.”
Mansi Shah, the founder of NGO Happy Feet Home, works with children who are HIV and/or thalassemia patients. Ms. Shah emphasized that, “Right now, all of us, everybody in the world for that matter, is going through a lot of stuff, whether we come from underprivileged or privileged backgrounds.” However, she also highlighted that the scale of concern and anxiety ranges: “the question is will there be food on my plate tomorrow because I don’t know if there is money. As someone has said, we are in the same storm or the same ocean but not in the same boat. Some are in ships, some in boats, others on rafts.”
It is quite different when “You know you have food on the table …” Our siblings, nieces, nephews or children are contained in the house and kids need play-time. As an educated adult, one can google, understand and communicate about the situation but children don’t have those capacities and that vocabulary. There are the children who “don’t know when life is going to come back to normal.” Happy feet home kids require medicine and their medicine is at stake because they cannot travel to the hospital all the time. A girl from Happy Feet Home’s suicidal thoughts were exacerbated during this time. Others are dying from regular illnesses like fever and diarrhea as hospitals are fearful of COVID-19 and some may be refusing treatment due to a lack of staff and resources. “To fall ill right now is the worst thing”, and ironically, that is the one thing out of our control. Patients’ immunities are compromised and there is an underlying fear, impacting their well-being, where the kids believe “if they get this illness they are not going to make it.”
I invite you to move beyond generalisation, whether they are minor or major, and comprehend that this is a deeply rooted issue of systemic corruption and neglect and the underprivileged are paying the price because they don’t have what society, twistedly, values and favours. I recently had a conversation with a friend about being able to figuratively hide behind concepts, like money and a last name. That is not nearly common and when we step out of our bubble, we can discuss the mental health issues deeply rooted into communities that are marginalised. There is chronic stress, substance abuse, extreme anxiety, domestic violence that children are experiencing as collateral damage to their parent’s mental health or, first hand.
I am inviting you to consider this:
What if we can engage and better our understanding of what is outside our bubble? What if we recognise our common humanity and seek out each other in times of distress? What if we ask those impacted how we can help rather than assume? What if we can see beyond the skyscrapers and know that our world is built by discriminatory systems and work towards changing it? What if…
About the Author:
Sanaa Mehta is a rising grade 12 student at an international school in Mumbai. She intends to major in political science for university and has a passion for debate and Model United Nations. She is an advocate for women empowerment and strong believer in philanthropy, collaboration, compassion and strategic leadership. She also loves music, specifically drumming, and loves adventurous sports like skiing.
How can you support Khoj Community School?
Relief support is a method which I believe is constructive and efficient primarily because the Khoj Community School’s executive team has been in contact with the community through calls. The members have found in their work that they need basic resources, and we know nutrition, shelter and sanitation play huge roles in well-being.