Children in under privileged communities face increased pandemic-induced anxieties

Mental health in Mumbai slums

Ambujwadi Basti. Photo: Poonam Nalawade

I work with the youth and children of Behrampada, Bandra and Ambujwadi, Malvani as a Psychosocial Counsellor with the non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA). 

The two communities I work in are distinct in their own ways.

Both communities comprise of the urban poor. While in Malvani people from different religious backgrounds live together, in Behrampada it is primarily the Muslim community. People from both communities largely work in the informal sector; in Behrampada many run small-scale businesses. 

In Behrampada, they don’t give much importance to  education, rather work is given a priority. Hence the number of school dropouts has been on the rise there when compared with Malvani. 

Both communities face some common issues like lack of access to secure and adequate housing, adequate food, sanitation, concerns of safety issues, financial challenges, etc. These problems are so complex and intertwined that they affect the youth and children of these communities to a large extent. “I’m tense and worried when my parents have an argument. They don’t fight regularly but when they do I don’t know what to do,” said a 13-year-old from Behrampada in Bandra. “My father is an auto-driver, so his income is not much and my mother has to manage everything at home. When they have fights my mother’s blood pressure shoots up and she faints. I don’t think my father is wrong as he works as much as he can, but due to the lockdown his work is also hampered.” 


Read more: Effects of Urbanisation: A look at marginalised women’s mental health


Online education is stressful

The changing face of education to the online mode, due to the ongoing pandemic has given rise to new sets of problems in these communities. The anxiety and stress within students due to the unavailability of electronic devices and difficulty of adapting to online studies is quite high. Among other factors, students are also dropping out from schools due to their inability to pay school fees. They feel pressured to support the family financially too. “I work at a factory because I like working there. I have nothing to do as the schools are also closed. So instead of wasting my time I am working. My mother needs money, my father left us and I’m the eldest so I have to work. I have to take care of my younger sisters as well,” said a 12-year-old boy from Malvani.  

Among the youth, especially, I have found a casual attitude towards education in these current times. They can often get by just by recording their attendance for online classes, so they just join the lecture and continue to do other things. They are often unable to fully understand online lectures, adapt to this mode of online studies, are unprepared for online exams and end up just copying answers and passing exams without much effort. 

They are living in such a complex environment and facing so much stress daily that many have just found a way to navigate the education system in a manner that doesn’t cause them more stress. 

Other mental anxieties

In my work with the youth and children, I also encounter other mental anxieties they are experiencing. 

A 19-year-old female from Behrampada used to be depressed and always wanted to end her life as she thought she was being eve teased every now and then. I started involving her in various activities and pushed her to do what she is good at, asking her to talk to me whenever she felt suicidal. To some extent, this has helped her overcome suicidal behaviour. 

Young boys usually have their own methods of coping with their psychological issues, especially during this lockdown phase, by diverting their attention to social media or gaming or by spending time with their friends. But girls are far more limited by gender constraints. Some are able to talk to their friends; many try to divert their minds with household chores. 

In the case of children their response to lockdown is very different. Children usually try to hide their problems more than youth. They often have unhealthy ways of coping with their problems like self-harming, fighting, or isolating themselves. 

As both youth and children in Behrampada and Malvani are not really aware of counselling and how it can support their needs, they have often not reached out for support. In addition, the family’s economic condition has made it unaffordable for them. Moreover, the stigma related to mental illness is very much prevalent in both the communities. 

Introducing mental health

I started working with the youth and children with sessions on ‘the Introduction to Mental health’ in small groups. I followed this up with separate interviews conducted with each of them to understand their problems, which they were often not able to share in larger groups. 

As I built better rapport and trust with the children and youth I organised various games for them like, draw emojis on the basis of sentences, brain vita and puzzle games, sessions on understanding the self, feelings and emotions and more. For instance, I helped them understand how stress works with the analogy of a filled-up balloon: the air in the fully blown balloon is the stress that we accumulate and the balloon is the capacity of our mind. Sometimes we tie a knot and keep it within ourselves, shutting out others and sometimes we offer a chance to release it. If not handled carefully the balloon can burst. In the same way, we have to maintain our sanity by releasing stress from time to time by sharing our problems with others.

My interventions remain focused on helping youth and children talk about their problems more freely and seek psychological help without hesitation. I help them empathise more with challenges each one is facing. The activities that I have conducted with youth and children have helped them understand that stress is a normal outcome of our current times and that they too can come up with different ideas to solve problems and gain confidence from their efforts. 

It is not just the children and youth who are vulnerable at these times. Mental health support should be extended to all community members. There is hardly any comprehensive intervention at present, to look into the welfare of community members, and help them better handle the challenges they are facing. It is critical to not only increase awareness about the power of counseling and psychological support and destigmatise mental health, but also to extend such facilities to the most marginalised in our cities, to help them lead a more healthy and supportive life. 

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About Poonam Nalawade 1 Article
Poonam Nalawade is a Psychosocial Counsellor with the non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA).

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