In 2015, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) summit adopted the landmark 2030 Agenda to accelerate progress on 17 goals and their targets.
The current pandemic, however, has been one of the greatest challenges in human history. We still have no idea of the full repercussions of COVID-19. There has been loss of lives and livelihood. Over a million people have died. The global economy has shrunk drastically. An estimated 21 million jobs have been lost in India alone between April and August 2020. The education of 320 million children across the country has been impacted. All in all, the progress of our SDGs has been negatively affected in every which way.
Education and mental health are two SDGs that are of critical importance to India’s future. Where do we stand with them?
When it comes to education, India has actually made a lot of progress. We have seen extensive implementation of our ‘education for all’ goal with substantial growth in enrollment rates as well as student retention.
However, several challenges remain. For example, the PISA and ASER tests show that a large proportion of children in India do not meet the level of learning outcomes prescribed for their respective classes.
With private schools being expensive, 65% of Indian students attend government schools. India’s government school system, however, needs an urgent overhaul. We need to empower not only the students but also the teachers and modernize the system drastically.
Thankfully, after nearly three decades, the new National Education Policy (NEP) has been introduced in 2020 with the intention of transforming and democratizing the Indian education system by 2030 in strategic phases. In line with the principles of our SDGs, NEP 2020 will ensure free education till the age of 18 and focus on critical learning and vocational skills rather than rote learning.
The onus, however, will also be on schools to put more emphasis on creativity, innovations, critical thinking, life skills and the personality development of children besides the execution of the syllabus. Only if schools offer students the right options for honing their inherent skills and interests can the concept of multi-disciplinary education actually bear fruits. At the same time, we will need to train and equip teachers with the skillsets and knowledge required for a 21st century education. The existing infrastructure of India’s schools will also need major revamping for NEP 2020 to actually reform education. If India truly has to make accelerated progress towards its SDGs for education, technology and online learning have to supplement the offline models significantly.
For example, the schooling of 75% students in India has suffered during the lockdown due to the lack of internet access. As per the 2017-18 National Sample Survey, only 23.8% of Indian households had internet access with numbers dropping to 14.9% for rural households. The solution lies in stepping up the digital infrastructure across the country at affordable prices.
We also need to focus on providing education for children with disabilities and different learning or emotional needs. Sadly, only 55% of people with disabilities in India are literate and 34% of children with special needs are out of school. We need inclusive educational programs and differentiated learning programs to overcome the impediments in this sphere.
Thankfully, in alignment with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, NEP 2020 is promising barrier-free access to education for those with disabilities. The children will be able to choose between regular and special-needs schooling. Teacher education programs will impart knowledge on how children with specific disabilities should be taught.
Ensuring the mental well-being of our future generations is extremely vital. At Mpower, we have just launched the Minds Matter program, a mental health curriculum for grades 1 to 12 for schools across India. This curriculum promotes mental health literacy in kids and teaches them coping mechanisms for mental health concerns. When children, parents and educators become aware, when help-seeking behavior is encouraged, and when there is empathy in kids for those suffering from mental health issues – it can alleviate the stigmas associated with mental health.
Unfortunately, mental health has never been high on the national consciousness. We have an estimated 130 million people with mental health issues, and this number has increased exponentially while we have been grappling with the pandemic.
Despite this large burden, only 10% of Indians with mental health concerns receive evidence-based treatments. India only has one psychiatrist for every 3,00,000 people, one psychologist per 15,000 people and a mere 26,000 hospital beds for mental healthcare. Treatment gaps in excess of over 83% exist due to insufficient funding for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. In fact, India’s spending on mental health care has consistently been inadequate. The National Mental Health Programme allocated a mere 40 crores rupees in the 2020-21 budget, 20% less than the 50 crores allocated in 2018-19. As per the Indian Psychiatric Society, it will take 150 years to bridge the gap at the current rate of growth.
Despite widespread reforms in the Mental Health Act 2017, we need far better implementation of the government’s existing policies. The government needs to allocate a substantial budget and more resources to mental healthcare services, as many nations in the world have done.
For example, the Australian government sanctioned an extra 500 millon dollars for mental-health services and suicide prevention during the pandemic. Norway now has psychiatric casualty clinics at some hospitals. Germany has a community-based program that provides mentally ill patients with financial support and helps them find or retain employment.
The treatment gap needs to reduce quickly and drastically. Every government hospital and care centre must have a mental healthcare wing. Capacity building is crucial and we urgently require more hospital beds, facilities and trained personnel for the timely diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses. As Mpower is doing with its Academia arm, modules can be developed so that more mental health personnel in remote locations can be trained to increase the workforce capacity and reduce care disparities. Also, awareness drives by way of workshops and campaigns in schools, colleges, corporates, communities and on the social media can foster mental-health literacy in laypeople and help stamp out stigma.
Government collaborations with the private sector, NGOs and communities can help mental healthcare reach the maximum number of people. There are many innovative ideas that we can emulate.
For example, Zimbabwe, which has just 12 psychiatrists for its 16 million population, adopted the Friendship Bench program where grandmothers were trained to give cognitive behavioral therapy. Remarkably, prevalence of depression dropped to under 10% in a six-month period.
One solution to India’s lacunae vis-à-vis mental healthcare personnel lies in creating more educational opportunities in the mental health arena. Currently, there is an extremely limited curriculum of mental health / psychiatry stems in medical colleges – merely 1.4% lecture hours and a 2-week internship in a medical school. We need to put far more emphasis on mental health education in our colleges and universities. Online courses can increase the reach substantially, help bolster the workforce and reduce care disparities.
In conclusion, SDGs are an opportunity for us to press the reset button and shape a more equitable and sustainable planet. The concept of the Butterfly Effect tells us that small events can act as catalysts in great transformations. Our actions at this point in time will be like casting a stone into water. The ripples of these actions will be felt far and wide, and for a long, long time to come. We have the power to be change-makers. If we can work in a unified manner towards achieving our pledged SDGs, we can affect a paradigm shift that has the potential to revolutionize the social fabric of our world for generations to come.