What should a teenage boy do if his parents are constantly bickering at home during lockdown, and it is affecting his studies? How does a parent react if their adolescent daughter has struck up a friendship with a stranger online and will not listen to them? Who can a pubescent student discuss sexuality with during the pandemic?
A Satara-based startup, ThatMate, is helping thousands of young adults and their families understand the complex mental and sexual issues of teenagers, assess if there is a problem and how to find help. More than 10,000 people have downloaded the app and the helpline receives a call every day.
The bootstrapped startup, by Madhavi Jadhav and Nishant Neeraj, was registered in 2019 and its app was launched in 2020. A few weeks ago, it raised $140,000 in angel funding and plans to launch the app, which is in English, in Hindi and regional languages.
“Parents are reporting a lot of behavioural changes in children, such as anger and anxiety, during the lockdown. There has been a lot of screen time and teenagers have been making friends online, sometimes with strangers, as they try to forge a community. Over the past year, they have come to rely on these communities far more than the real world,” says Jadhav.
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With schools and colleges closed and public spaces out of bounds, teenagers have been deprived of activities that constitute a normal life. For the first time ever, the majority of young adults would have developed online connections that are stronger than physical connections. Traumatic events such as death of loved ones, illness in the family and uncertainty about exams have compounded the emotional distress among adolescents.
Jadhav says that, in most cases, teenagers either don’t know when they have a problem or think that an ordinary bout of sadness is depression. “Depression is a word that is misused a lot,” says Jadhav.
“Our content is designed by psychologists to make people aware of issues such as anxiety, depression or sexual problem. This enables young people to assess their problems at an early stage. The app also teaches them how to approach someone who is more knowledgeable, such as their parents, a doctor or the teachers. Ideally, the adults should be equipped to help teenagers and they should not need the helpline. We launched the helpline in case people, especially children, needed to call us as everybody is going through anxious times cooped up in home,” adds Neeraj.
The duo has been working with schools since 2018. At the end of the month, ThatMate will begin a project with the government of Jharkhand, where it will work with half a million teenagers in a pilot supported by UNICEF. Talks are also underway with the government of Maharashtra to work with adolescents of the state.
“As long as mental and sexual health are concerned, there has been no change in awareness in India among the teenagers mostly because nothing has changed since 2018. Our curriculum doesn’t have mental or sexual health,” says Neeraj.
The new content of the app will address a generation of adolescents who might find it difficult to connect with the real world after spending a year within four walls. Already, a number of teachers have told him and Jadhav that they don’t know if teenagers will be able to sit for such long hours in a regular classroom.
“Storytelling really works with teenagers and that’s how we will develop the app further,” says Jadhav. Coming up, will be interactive games, quizzes and stories that can reveal the mental health of a player .“We are also redesigning the user interface to make it more appealing to young people,” says Neeraj.
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