What’s #OnMyMind?

How can we foster strong connections for better mental health

By Shitanshu Dhakal, UNICEF Nepal Youth Advocate for Mental Health
caring hand
27 May 2022

Over the years, I have come to realize that our mental health is deeply bonded to the relationships we share with our parents, with our peers, with people we encounter, and with the society we live in. As someone who has stepped into her twenties, I now understand the impact these relationships have on my overall mental well-being. 

Inside our homes, the way our parents shape us, the way they react to our mistakes, the expectations they have from us, and the support we receive from them – it all plays a vital role in determining how we feel, AKA our mental well-being. Most young people like me encounter numerous hurdles because of the generation gap with our parents, and the differences in perception that this can bring about. The generation gap is particularly evident when it comes to discussing mental health. The stigma surrounding this subject was much stronger in our parents’ time, and never discussed openly. Most parents, therefore, avoid talking about mental health or disregard it all together.  

I am lucky to have parents who have always been incredibly supportive of me, encouraging me to chase my dreams and giving me the freedom to take that step. However, I have friends who are scared to talk to their parents and instead opt to lie about and hide their feelings. Parents everywhere understandably have certain expectations from their children. But in Nepal and most South Asian countries, this expectation is often forced upon and non-negotiable, especially when it comes to their studies and ambitions. Some of my friends are studying medicine due to family pressure and struggling to maintain good grades. 

I do not necessarily blame just the parents. Everyone is constantly trying to impress and earn respect in tightly knit communities – where we live, what we drive, where we work, what we study, etc. The previous generations have predetermined notions of what equals success and what is worthy of respect. As a result of this toxic need to please everyone, young people are struggling to excel in a field they may have no interest in or may not necessarily be good at. The situation is further exasperated when parents compare their child’s performance to others and express disappointment. 

Mental wellbeing, or the lack of it, also extends to cultural practices that are outdated and derogatory towards a particular group or gender. Girls and women in my own extended family, for instance, have expressed to me how excluded and distressed they’ve felt because they were barred from participating in important family events because they were menstruating. And when they’ve tried to offer their reasons for wanting to change these practices, their parents and family members have turned a deaf ear without so much as an explanation. This blatant refusal to even consider things from the perspective of children and adolescents adds to the grudges that each generation holds against the other.  

Another crucial factor that affects young people’s mental health is the need for validation from people around us, a need that can become all-consuming. Because of this pressure to fit in, we force ourselves to do things we do not necessarily want and follow trends that we might not agree with. When our peers treat us poorly – such as bullying or body shaming – it permanently leaves us scarred and feeling inferior to everyone around us.  

All this has only worsened with the ever-rising popularity of social media. Children and young people are constantly exposed to unattainable standards of physical perfection and glamorous lifestyles. We are always comparing ourselves to others and end up feeling like we are not good enough. I remember, in high school, feeling very self-conscious about my weight because of mocking, snarky comments people used to post on our comments. It was difficult to remind myself that their views did not matter; I felt this immense pressure to lose weight, to look good.  

Thankfully, it did not lead to an eating disorder, but it very well could have. Body shaming can mess up your mind, and it can also mess up your health if it pushes you to seek unhealthy ways to fit into these strict standards of beauty. For children and young people who live a big part of their lives online, the pressure to conform and be liked is immense, something adults can often have a hard time understanding.  

We – the new and older generations – need to foster better relationships, promote open conversations and pursue positive connections with people without any prejudice. This is key for better mental health outcomes. Parents, families, friends, and the societies we live in – they all must be willing to listen to us and support us. Schools and colleges need to take steps to clamp down on all forms of bullying and harassment and provide adequate mental health support where required, such as counselling by trained professionals. When it comes to social media, companies, organizations, and users themselves need to collectively monitor and mitigate the adverse mental health impacts of these platforms, especially on young users, and put safeguarding mechanisms in place.  

Mental health has always been a subject buried in silence and stigma, and those who have suffered have had a tough time speaking out and seeking help. The onset of COVID-19 and the restrictions, disruptions, and isolation it brought – have further exacerbated mental health issues. In simpler terms, mental health emerged as a hidden pandemic within the pandemic. Now, more than ever, young people need different platforms, and the encouragement to speak out and share their stories and support each other’s journeys. This is the only way we can finally bring mental health out of the shadows.