Young people’s health has the potential to affect future population health as well as global economic development unless timely and effective strategies are put into place,” warns a paper by Ali H. Mokdad et al, a country-specific analysis of the Burden of Disease 2013, which has appeared in the current issue of the medical journal Lancet. It echoes a report released on Tuesday by the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Well-being, which probes the prospects of a significant but poorly studied section of the population, those aged 10-24. It appears that globally and in India, suicide is a leading cause of death in what should be the best years of a human life. Related psychological disorders are common, finding expression in depression, anxiety, substance abuse and migraine.
Almost one out of three Indians is aged 10-24. This cohort used to be regarded as the leading edge of the population explosion but has been redesignated as the “demographic dividend” more recently. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP proved to be quicker off the block in addressing and appealing to this section. However, this could be a case of premature monetisation. Rearranging the game board in order to repackage a weakness as a strength is excellent strategy, but a body of youth suffering, in numbers large enough to draw notice, from psychological morbidity — to the extent that suicide is not unthinkable — is unlikely to offer reliable dividends.
Hopefully, the Lancet report will not bring forth a spurt of medical nationalism. Rather, it should spur a serious examination of the state of the nation’s youth. In India, suicide among the young has a strong positive correlation with perceived social and economic prospects. Traditionally, suicides have been triggered by the failure to cope academically, which reduces access to formal employment. Now that the system of teaching has eased up and professional opportunities have widened into non-formal sectors, could the urge to end it all be linked to the gulf yawning between aspiration and reality? Despite the election promises and policy declarations aimed at skilling and employment generation, governments may also be failing to arm the youth for the future. At the same time, the re-emergence of the campus as the fulcrum of unrest and protest points to social and political forces that the youth are forced to grapple with in their quest for a better life. Significantly, the chain of campus protests in recent times was triggered by the suicide of a student in Hyderabad. Self-harm among the youth holds out a red flag to the government, warning it against taking the demographic dividend for granted.