Our childhood is generally associated with happy images. It is a time when the protective love of parents should keep every child free from the evils of the real world that they will inevitably face as adults.
However, there are growing concerns over the incidence of depression among children as young as eight or 10 years old in our country. According to the rather limited research carried out on the matter, 20 million children suffer from mental health issues in one form or the other. The Aga Khan University Hospital has observed in one of its studies that depression is among the most common mental health concerns faced by children.
There are also other statistics that ought to make us think. In Pakistan, between 35 percent and 40 percent of the population suffers from depression. Although more precise data isn’t available on the subject, experts have pointed out that many of those who suffer from this condition are under the age of 20.
The suicide rate in the country is also an indicator of what’s going on. Suicide is a subject that we prefer not to talk about, with many suicide cases going largely unnoticed. A study published in a medical journal has recorded 300 suicides over the past two years. In 2018 alone, at least eight cases of people below the age of 20 committing suicide made headlines. Experts suggest that the figure could be considerably higher if we account for incidents that are covered-up by families and friends due to the stigma attached to suicide.
It is only when we cannot look away that we stop and think and, for a short while at least, ask questions. The dramatic manner in which a university student committed suicide in November 2018 caused a flurry on social media and the mainstream media. Her friends posted messages on social media, stating that they had noticed warning signs for many years which led them to believe that she may be contemplating suicide. It appears that no one took her seriously. Even in the moments before she jumped from the fourth-floor balcony of her university, the student was ignored.
The case of Anam Tanoli, a model who killed herself last year on the same day that she had an appointment with her counsellor, also suggests how the problems associated with depression are prevalent in our society. But the saddest of all signs are the reports from psychiatrists and other experts that suggest more children under the age of 16 suffer from acute stress or depression. Lack of awareness and the fact that there are only around 300-400 trained psychiatrists working in the country contribute to this problem. But teachers and others who deal with children on a regular basis will testify to the fact that they now facing enormous pressures which they are unable to handle.
At schools across the country, reports indicate that children may be suffering from mental health issues. These indications manifest themselves in the form of eating disorders, self-harm, and social-media posts that refer to the constant sense of sadness or inadequacy felt by children.
A more detailed analysis along with input from experts is required to precisely understand what is happening. Children have the right to a happy childhood. It should be a time that they can enjoy with limited pressure and burdens. Yet everywhere and across the socio-economic spectrum, we see children who return wearily from school, with heavy bags filled with books. Within hours, they carry the same bags to tuition centres or ‘academies’ – as they are now called – to engage in further studies and encounter the same kind of negative remarks that many of them already confront in the classrooms.
In the past few years, we have heard stories of girls and boys who are as young as 14 – or even less – committing suicide after receiving poor marks in tests. Parental wrath is apparently their main fear. As a result, parents need to ask themselves a vital question: do they want happy children or successful ones who must be punished if they don’t meet the often unrealistic goals laid out for them? It is not uncommon for children as young as 12 or 13 to be punished in one way or the other for getting a ‘B’ rather than an ‘A’, which seems to be the only grade that will satisfy parents. Other factors such as a child’s feelings or his/her emotional happiness are secondary concerns. Love, it appears, has been made conditional.
The same kind of stress extends to other aspects of life. Parents expect their children to be the best at whatever they do. They often take away the joy of participating in activities such as school plays, sporting events or music by insisting that their children keep ahead of the field in any competitive activity. Even three-year-olds are pressurised to appear for school entrance exams and sometimes made to attend preparatory centres set up for this purpose. These centres, of course, earn huge profits. But the toll this pressure takes on a child seems
We need to learn some lessons. Not every child may excel, but each one of them is an individual with great potential and unique abilities. It is important to recognise this fact. The rat race among parents to do whatever they can to ensure that their children are at the top of their class often involves their own egos rather than concerns about the welfare of their children. Every parent would like to see his/her child achieve good grades, succeed in other areas of life, and gain admission to good colleges or universities. But we need to consider if we are going about this the right way.
The school system in Scandinavian countries, notably Finland, ought to be a role model for all of us. In these countries, children don’t start school till they are seven years old. Even then, they are not pressurised to learn during these years, enjoy frequent breaks between lessons at schools, and don’t take any exams until they reach high school. And yet, these pupils perform better academically, often moving far ahead of their counterparts in countries such as Korea and Japan where children under the age of 16 are expected to study up to 16 hours a day.
Not surprisingly, these teenagers feel burnt out before reaching university and often drop out of the education system or end up as poor achievers. This is something we need to think about. There is, indeed, a great deal of rethinking taking place in Japan as well and many education experts are of the view that the system has to change in order to give children their stolen childhoods back.
In developing countries such as ours, socio-economic pressures in households add to the stresses faced by children. They appear to exist only to fulfil the hopes and dreams of their parents. Parents will always have expectations of their children. But they must keep them within realistic bounds and remember that depression among children is too high a price to pay for good grades or other victories.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.