The need for mental health in S4D programs in India
The state of mental health in India has been underexplored and deplorable for a while. 197.3 million people in India live with a mental illness and suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-29. This is indicative of an ongoing mental-health crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stigmatization of mental health, along with lack of access, affordability and awareness have resulted in visible gaps in treatment. The limited infrastructure and awareness of mental health points to a dire need to prioritize mental health as a public health and development issue in India.
Multiple studies suggest that sports and physical activity have a positive impact on mental health. Physical activity and sports can play a significant role in preventing mental-health problems and enhancing the quality of life for those experiencing it. Sport activates the body, which keeps the mind distracted from daily stresses, capacitating individuals to deal better with life. Sports participation can increase self-esteem and reduce stress and anxiety among children as well as adults.
The sport for development (S4D) sector stands relevant in this regard. Sport in the S4D sector involve a range of physical activities that go beyond competition and promote social interaction, emotional development and general physical and mental wellbeing.
The S4D sector is capable of leveraging the positive link between physical activity and mental health. This will be particularly impactful in the Indian context as it offers an interesting approach to tackle the mental health crisis.
The S4D landscape in India
Sporting culture in India places a heavy emphasis on elite sport, emphasizing competition and performance, and taking a rather narrow view of sport, overlooking the scope of sport to foster social change. The sport for development sector is an emerging field that intends to reduce the socio-economic disadvantages that elite sports present – unequal access to sports, limited alternatives for athletes, insufficient sports infrastructure, etc. A range of S4D organizations are working at the grassroots levels to bring about changes, including life skill development, gender equality, poverty eradication, socio-emotional development and education through sports participation amongst youth from marginalized sections. The scale of the S4D ecosystem is increasing and the work undertaken by the S4D organizations in India is ground-breaking, but the pace of growth has been slow, due to systemic issues in the Indian sports ecosystem.
Some S4D organizations have made progressive efforts in promoting the holistic development of youth. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a component in some programs, aligned with mental wellness, forming a significant part of holistic development.
In some cases, SEL has been more of an unintended consequence. An impact report by Pro Sport Development (PSD) and Anantapur Sports Academy (ASA) indicates that the program run by ASA has had a slight impact on the social and emotional learning of the participants. Other organizations have had a more overt focus on mental health components including SEL, confidence-building and improving self-esteem. PSD’s Community Sports Program is one such program that places emphasis on social and emotional learning in its objectives.
While mental health components have been integrated in the design of S4D programs in India, there is a need to provide structure to these components to holistically improve the mental health of young people.
Including mental health in S4D programs
An impactful way to include mental health components into S4D programs can be through a special acknowledgement of the mental health components in the program so that the impact on mental health is active, rather than passive. There is a need for dedicated sessions on mental health related themes such as stress and anxiety. The active pursual of mental health in S4D will also fit well with youth development, as mental wellness is a pre-requisite to learning life-skills, an objective of many S4D programs in India.
S4D programs in India largely concern the young participants, but their impact and objectives also include other stakeholders like parents, coaches, educational institutes, and sport federations. Integrating mental health components can provide an opportunity to educate these stakeholders about mental health, which will help them make a significant impact in improving the mental health of young individuals.
Here are a few recommendations to improve mental health through S4D programs:
- Building safe spaces: In order to support the impact of mental health components in S4D programs, building a comfortable and safe space is imperative. Talking about mental health and wellness can be extremely personal, given the stigma around it. Thus, S4D program design and implementation need to build an atmosphere of trust in order to bring change pertaining to mental health among youth.
- Increasing mental health awareness: Mental health can be enhanced if programs highlight the link between S4D and mental wellbeing, which can act as a platform to build awareness on mental health.
- Collaborating with mental health practitioners: The right way to generate awareness is to develop an expert-based intervention. Involving mental health practitioners could assist with knowledge dissemination as well as making the mental health components in S4D programs more concrete. Mental health experts can guide how the elements related to mental wellbeing are incorporated. Practitioners can also provide professional help to participants or other stakeholders if they’re facing a serious mental health issue.
- Special training of important stakeholders: An individual’s environment heavily influences their mental wellbeing; hence, people in their environment need to be involved in the process of maintaining good mental health. The same applies to S4D programs – implementers of the program need to be sensitive towards the mental wellness of the participants while delivering the program. This includes coaches, teachers, institutes, and parents. Thus, implementers should be specially trained to be mindful of the recipients’ mental health, as well as to identify red flags in a recipient’s mental wellbeing.
Inclusion of mental health in S4D programs in India is vital and needs much work. However, there are certain challenges in integrating these aspects in S4D programs in India. The first relates to the practicality of this integration. On-ground implementation of mental health centric S4D programs might seem unrealistic. This could be because of the social and economic conditions of the community that the program is being delivered in – coaches and participants may lack the awareness to understand the significance of mental health.
The second challenge is the limited number of mental health practitioners in India, especially in non-urban settings. In addition to this, lack of an established network between the S4D sector and mental health practitioners can make this integration tough to implement. Further, the integration of mental health in S4D programs could be overwhelming for Indian organisations, due to their current focus on different developmental aspects.
Despite these potential challenges, S4D organisations must prioritize young people’s holistic wellbeing and collectively work towards leveraging the positive link between sports and mental health.
Pro Sport Development (PSD) is an award-winning social enterprise that uses sport as a tool for the holistic development of children and youth.
Sangath is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation committed to improving health across the life span by empowering existing community resources