Are we losing an entire generation?

Adolescent mental health requires more attention

Most Bangalis read about Phatik Chakravorti, the famous character of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Chhuti (translated as “Homecoming”). In just a few lines, Tagore poignantly sums up the conflicts inherent in adolescence:

“In this world of human affairs there is no worse nuisance than a boy at the age of 14. He is neither ornamental nor useful. It is impossible to shower affection on him as on a little boy; and he is always getting in the way. If he talks with a childish lisp, he is called a baby, and if he answers in a grown-up way, he is called impertinent.” 

Adolescence is a unique and formative time that takes us through multiple physical, emotional, and social changes. These years are critical for physical growth and developing the social and emotional habits imperative for mental well-being. 

While an individual adolescent develops these habits, supportive environments in the family, at school, and in the wider community are vital. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 10–20% of adolescents globally experience mental health issues, and the majority of these remain underdiagnosed and undertreated, as they do in countries like Bangladesh. 

For adolescents, multiple factors -- desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and use of technology -- determine mental health outcomes. The influence of media and gender norms can also intensify the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their aspirations for the future. 

During these emotionally driven years, adolescents are prone to nurture romantic relationships or infatuations. Being unsuccessful or unsatisfied with their relationship status may also hinder mental well-being. 

Another important aspect is an adolescent’s home situation, which includes the relationship between the parents as well as the parents’ relationship dynamics with the adolescent. Exposure to volatile or unusual situations can hinder the balance of emotional well-being. Academic performance-related pressures from educational institutions, parents, and other relatives can result in a “comparison-syndrome” or “imposter syndrome,” wherein an adolescent feels inadequate. 

The Bangladesh context

Violence -- physical, sexual, verbal -- are recognized risks to mental health. In developing countries like Bangladesh, adolescents are at greater risk of mental health conditions due to their living conditions, stigma, discrimination or exclusion, or lack of access to quality support and services. 

The Bangladesh Adolescent Health and Wellbeing Survey 2019–20 found that 5–15% of adolescents ages 15–19 years have major depressive disorder. Among these, females (11–15%) are more likely to have major depressive disorder than males (5%). Married teenaged girls have a higher level (15%) of major depressive disorder compared to unmarried girls of the same age (11%). 

In Bangladesh, around 400,000 adolescent boys and 1,000,000 adolescent girls ages 15–19 years are suffering from major depressive disorders. 

Life for a typical school-going urban adolescent in Bangladesh generally revolves around school, homework, friends, worrying about grades, sports, and weekends filled with family obligations. However, with school closures because of Covid-19, life changed. One of the biggest adjustments we are facing during this pandemic is the dependency on virtual platforms -- be that for educational purposes, socialization, or entertainment. 

While online platforms present unique learning opportunities, they also create a new kind of fatigue across all age groups -- especially among youths. Digital platforms introduce a lot of unrealistic expectations for young people. The constant need to live up to the trends, fashions, and “in” items often make adolescents forget that the virtual world is not the real world. 

So, what is the way out? WHO has suggested guidelines for looking after adolescent mental health in this pandemic situation. 

Encourage adolescents to share their feelings

Check in with your teens. It is essential to take time and ask them how their day has been and how they are doing. This can be done while doing a household chore, like making  dinner together. 

It is important for your youngsters to know that you are there for them and that you acknowledge and understand their states of mind. As a parent, it is important to remember that a positive parenting approach works better than a negative or critical one. 

Work through conflict together

Parents need to remember that everyone gets stressed, and that it is better not to discuss an issue while angry. Having a conversation always outweighs having an angry exchange of views. 

Parents need to remember that the power game or “showing the child who’s boss” (authoritative parenting) doesn’t work, especially not with Generation Z. Having an open discussion in a calm voice and listening more than talking paves the way for a better parent-child relationship. 

Have a routine

Despite school closures and limited travel permission, WHO suggests keeping up with daily routines as much as possible. This includes: 

(1) Getting up and going to bed at similar times every day 

(2) Keeping up with personal hygiene 

(3) Eating healthy meals at regular times 

(4) Exercising regularly 

(5) Allocating time for work and time for resting 

(6) Most importantly, making time for doing things with family 

Control newsfeeds

WHO suggests controlling media and social media content -- be that watching, reading, or listening to news that makes one feel anxious or distressed. Sensationalized news clips often bring more harm than benefits.

Monitor screen time

For better mental health and eye health, WHO suggests monitoring overall screen time. Despite having to do many things on virtual platforms, adolescents should take regular breaks from on-screen activities.

Minimize playing video games

While video games can be a way to relax, it can be tempting to spend more time on them than usual when at home for long periods of time. WHO suggests maintaining a balance with offline activities in adolescents’ daily routines.

In Tagore’s story, Phatik’s widowed mother is unable to handle his awkward adolescent self so she sends him away to live with his uncle. Phatik gets into a modern school and the pressure to perform and compete at school begins. 

In his new home, he gets constantly compared with his cousins and his care is often ignored by his aunt. The once happy-go-lucky Phatik becomes distant and aloof. Desperate to go home and reunite with his mother, Phatik waits for his homecoming --his chhuti. 

But instead of this, Phatik dies. He has been offloaded and forgotten, deemed too much of a nuisance. Before we judge adolescents, let’s remember Phatik and strive to make them feel seen and heard. 

Shusmita Khan is Research Associate, Data for Impact (D4I), Carolina Population Center. Dr Quamrun Nahar is the head of research for maternal and child health division of icddr,b. As a social scientist she focuses her research on adolescent health, maternal health and women’s health. This article was produced with the support of USAID under the terms of their Research for Decision Makers (RDM) Activity cooperative agreement and of Data for Impact (D4I). Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Government or USAID. To learn more, please email Shusmita Khan at [email protected]