By Iffat Ikram
It is March 2019. We are getting ready for school and since we are running late, we skip breakfast. We are just about to leave, when we pull out our phone to check the time; we see that there is a notification from the school. At that moment, we could not have imagined what laid ahead of us in the next 365 days.
2020 was a year full of drastic changes. The pandemic not only did damage to the socio-economic aspects of our countries, but it radically affected our personal lives as well. It felt like the world had suddenly stopped spinning. But nothing did stop in reality; everything, from offices to schools, moved online. Everybody was interested in knowing the rising number of COVID-19 cases, but very few bothered to learn about the staggering downfall of mental wellbeing, especially among youth.
The mental health of people worldwide was affected. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center showed that one-third of Americans experienced high levels of psychological distress during the coronavirus outbreak. In the Global Spectrum, the percentage of people who reported their mental health in the lowest tires doubled as it rose from 6.8 percent to 14.4 percent.
India, a geographically and culturally diverse country with about 1.38 billion people, was seriously attacked by this pandemic as well. The mental health of the citizens, especially the youth suffered a lot. But there was hardly any importance given to this subject. Mental health has never actually gotten the importance it deserves in the country. Students, especially, are more vulnerable to mental health issues in India. Why?
The Indian Education System (CBSE) is divided into five major parts: the pre-primary school which includes kindergarten, the primary school consisting of grades 1 through 5, middle school with grade 6 through 8, high school with grades 9–12 and then college. One peculiar thing about this system is that students are allowed to choose their subjects only from grade 11 onwards. Up until grade 10, students study the pre-chosen subjects with their only independence being the selection of a language. This lack of independence is one of the main aspects affecting the mental health of the youth. For a decade or more, students have to study some subjects that they are neither interested in, nor plan on studying in college. It makes sense to have all kinds of subjects for a few years, but when students have to learn subjects that they are not interested in even in high school, difficulty increases and so does mental health issues.
In addition to students being in pre-chosen subjects for most of their school career, peer pressure adds to a rise in mental health issues among Indian youth. Children in India are taught to be competitive right from birth. There is always a race in everything, from school grades to getting into college. And then there is comparison. “How come they could do it and you could not?” is something that every Indian kid has heard at least once in their lives. And this competition is encouraged both at the school and at home.
Marks and grades on tests are a very important part of an Indian student’s life. Getting better marks is always more prioritized than actually learning something. And if a child scores slightly less marks than what was expected from them, they are deemed as failures.
Being called a failure can shatter a child’s dreams. And in this case, it is not just one or two people doing it, it is an entire society that includes even their own parents. The only way a child can escape from this is by being perfect at everything they do, which is practically impossible.
And of course, this brings the mention of India’s Matriculation system. What exactly is this system? Indian students are allowed to choose their favorite subjects in 11th grade, but students achieve this independence only after crossing a big hurdle, the matriculation exam. Students are tested throughout the year in every grade, but the year ending test of 10th grade is a very serious one. Once the test is done, the marks scored by children are graded nationally. For years, Indian students have had to give up their fun and entertainment as soon as they reach 10th grade to ‘focus’ on studying for their upcoming exams.
Extracurriculars are never given much priority in this system. A child can be amazingly talented in playing the piano but at the end of the day, everyone would judge this kid based on what their scores are.
Once graduation nears, there comes the pressure of getting into college. The saddest thing about colleges in India is that students get in solely on the basis of their marks or grades. The most common way of getting into college is through entrance exams and a must-have percentile of minimum 95 percent. The fear of being called a failure leads to the rise in the suicide rates in India during the results of these entrance exams.
Hustle culture has been intensively normalized and praised in fact. If a child sleeps for four hours a day and works for the rest, adults around them would praise them instead of advising them to change their sleep schedule. Studying and working vigorously with no rest is idolized, and in all of this, students remain the unaware victims.
In all of this pessimism, there is a hope for things to change with the new education laws. The education laws in India have changed after thirty-four years with the coming of The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which has shown some leniency in this rigid education system. One of the major reforms of the NEP 2020 is the replacement of the 10+2 structure (The 10+2 structure refers to 10 years of schooling, up until grade 10 and 2 years of schooling post grade 10, generally termed as senior secondary or junior college.) in schooling systems by the 5+3+3+4 structure (This structure includes 5 years of schooling in the foundational stage, 3 years in the preparatory stage, 3 years in the middle stage and 4 years in the Secondary stage.), a step endorsed by the entire student population. This policy focuses on vocational crafts, such as carpentry, pottery, garden work and aims to have at least 50 percent learners to get exposure to it by 2025.
However, the only problem here is the slow implementation. The first phase of NEP implementation is to be done by April 2022. This means that current juniors and seniors would have to suffer through the same old system.
The youth, however, has become much more aware with time and have pushed for changes in policies and the system as a whole. Even if there has not been radical protests against this system, a voice is slowly being created. The only thing the entire country is waiting for, is for this voice to explode.
Iffat Ikram is a high school sophomore from Maria’s Public School, India and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.