SOCIAL media and information communication technologies have brought profound benefits but they have also changed fundamental aspects of how human beings behave. This week’s observance of World Mental Health Day shines a much-needed spotlight on how the changing world has adversely affected the mental health of young people.
Mental illness is a serious problem as a whole in TT. Reports by the WHO on TT from 2017 suggest approximately 67,614 people suffer from depressive disorders or 5.2 per cent of the population. But teenagers are particularly vulnerable. One 2008 study suggests one out of every four secondary school students has depression.
Recent high-profile cases have brought home the challenges. A US court heard how TT national, Nishal Sankat, who was deported after being charged with attempting to steal an aircraft, was depressed. As was police corporal Ian Hamilton, 36, who committed suicide, leaving behind a devastated family struggling to pick up the pieces.
While we know mental health issues are causing suffering among a significant proportion of the population, we don’t have a clear enough picture of the specific challenges facing adolescents. However, judging from global trends, it is clear that social media is stoking anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and body image issues.
“The expanding use of online technologies, while undoubtedly bringing many benefits, can also bring additional pressures, as connectivity to virtual networks at any time of the day and night grows,” warned the WHO this week. According to clinical psychologist Giselle Dumas, there is a direct correlation between social media usage and mental health issues.
“The more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to suffer from mental health issues,” she says. “This is especially true in children and teens.”
So what are we do to? Counselling psychologist Anna Maria Mora puts the matter in stark terms.
“Parents have to make some decisions about their children’s relationship with this changing world,” she says. “Do we let the changing world take control of our children, or do we give our children the skills to control this changing world?” And we need to pay more attention to mental illness as a whole, says Dr Ian Hypolite, a psychiatrist at St Ann’s Hospital.
“It is considered a chronic non-communicable disease, just like diabetes and hypertension,” Hypolite says. “Depression, in particular, is going to gain much more significance in years to come as a leading cause of people classified as having a disease.”
There is a clear role for the State in terms of education and upgrade of our outdated medical facilities. But the real battle is getting people to stop kidding around when it comes to these issues. The various memes that circulated online in relation to the Sankat case illustrate how much further we have to go when it comes to taking our health seriously.
And, as the cases continue to show, this is a matter of life and death.