The Pursuit of Happiness: Delhi Govt Schools to Combat Mental Health Issues

As India’s mental health continues on a downward slope, small initiatives like teaching happiness could go a long way.

Bhutan helped pioneer the concept of a national happiness index. Credit: Reuters

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the one true thing worth seeking out in this world is happiness. Not money and fame, even if they do in some way contribute to our in-built happiness index, but good old joy and comfort. But can happiness be taught?

From the next academic session onwards, the new curriculum in schools in New Delhi aims to do just that. As reported by the Hindu, deputy chief minister and education minister Manish Sisodia said on February 8 that schools in Delhi will teach a “happiness curriculum”.

Before parents start fretting about how to prepare their children for examinations in such a subject, Sisodia clarified that there would be no formal tests and that the classes would be activity-based. “Their progress will be assessed periodically using happiness index,” he added.

The justification Sisodia gave for this new value addition to school curriculum is this: “At a time when our neighbour Bhutan is formulating policies to ensure a high Happiness Index for its citizens, by building an activity-based happiness curriculum for children studying in our schools, we can not only help enhance their personality but also influence the direction in which we are heading as a society and nation.”

This isn’t the first time that ‘happiness’ has fallen into the limelight in India. In July 2016, Madhya Pradesh’s cabinet gave its nod to the proposal of forming a ‘Ministry of Happiness’.

According to reports, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan created the ministry on the lines of Bhutan which measures prosperity of people by Gross National Happiness (GNH). The department was allocated with a budget of Rs 3.8 crore per year. Andhra Pradesh followed suit in 2017, but Scroll reported that “social activists and journalists believe that the idea of a happiness department is nothing but a publicity stunt” and wrote how nothing much has been achieved by such departments of happiness.

A worthy goal

At a time when the world is going through great upheaval because of terror, economic turbulence and a global right-wing surge, perhaps this is a goal well worth pursuing.

More so, beyond just teaching children how to beat the blues, it could help in an overall reduction of stress levels when it comes to giving examinations.

As the statistics stand today, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are well over 300 million people worldwide who suffer from depression. “Barriers to effective care include a lack of resources, lack of trained health-care providers, and social stigma associated with mental disorders,” WHO’s website says.

“At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds,” it adds.

India doesn’t fare too well here. Since 2014, over 26,000 students killed themselves, which roughly translates into a student taking his or her own life every hour.

In fact, according to a 2012 Lancet report, India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for youth aged 15 to 29. Maharashtra, Sikkim and West Bengal report the most student suicides.

“Adolescents today face new challenges, including rising levels of obesity, mental health disorders and high unemployment,” Dr Vikram Patel, professor of International Mental Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and among the expert researchers of the Lancet report, told The Indian Express.

What’s worse is that professional health isn’t easy to find – India has an 87% shortage of mental health professionals – and that there is a social stigma attached to it. Even when troubles souls confess their plight to friends or family, they usually get a slap on the back and are told to put their chin up and keep running the rat race.

According to an October 2016 study conducted among Indian university students, Hindustan Times reported, students from “happy” families suffer from less depression.

An unhappy nation

The Indian isn’t particularly happy, especially not when stacked up next to the rest of the world. We presently stand at 122 out of 155 countries in the World Happiness Report 2017.

In fact, we became unhappier since 2016, as India fell four notches below its previous rank of 118. Norway knocked off three-time topper Denmark to second place. There were followed by Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and Sweden.

Of course, it isn’t exactly surprising. India is a developing nation and has a more than just a few problems on its plate. We may be famous for our tenacity, but the World Happiness ranking takes into account factors like “GDP per capita, social support of having someone to count on in times of trouble, freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy, generosity and perceptions of corruption”.

Also read: India Is Facing a Mental Health Crisis – and Its Education System Is Ill Equipped to Handle It

But mental health is one aspect that deserves greater attention, particularly as of the total health budget, a mere 1-2% is spent on mental health.

More than 58 million Indians people suffer from depression. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, depression became India’s tenth-biggest cause of early deaths in 2015. There are huge gaps in treatment as National Mental Health Survey, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), found. There are only 43 government-run mental hospitals across all of India to provide services to more than 70 million people living with mental disorders. There are 0.30 psychiatrists, 0.17 nurses, and 0.05 psychologists per 1,00,000 mentally ill patients in the country.

This exactly why the Mental Healthcare Bill, 2016, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on March 27, 2017, and was hailed as a momentous reform, isn’t exactly quite up to the task of tackling this ever-growing mountain of a problem.

If your’e happy and you know it…

Bhutan, since 1971, has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress and opted measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.

Many countries have taken their cue from this, including the United Arab Emirates, which decided in 2015 to create a ministry of happiness and tolerance. Given the country’s record on human rights and gender equality, one Human Rights Watch official described the new job as ‘Orwellian’ to the New York Times – a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth spreads mostly lies.

But the UAE does’t have to worry very much, Internationally, the country is already pretty happy – or so says the 2015 World Happiness Report, which ranked it No.20 in 2016.

But it’s not the only country to create ministries to formally address citizens’ happiness. Venezuela created a Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness in 2013, tasked with coordinating anti-poverty programmes in a country suffering from widespread inflation and a harsh economic downturn. Ecuador’s appointed a state secretary of good living in 2013 to make the nation more content.

Most recently, the UK appointed a “minister of loneliness” to tackle the social and health issues caused by social isolation. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May said. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

As Nikhil Kovind wrote in a piece for The Wire last year, “We are at the heart of a mental health epidemic among the youth, whose full scope we have scarcely fathomed.”

“We have to accept that even the most well-meaning parents and family members are not as accessible to their children as they may think. What young people have to negotiate is a very complex emotional ecosystem, that includes pressures of self-image and insecurities of the future, and there are few life skills put in place to adequately cope with deep guilt, shame, fear and worry.”

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