The world around us is unravelling amidst the Coronavirus outbreak and so are our systems and structures. From a change in the way we work or study to a change in just being, our daily schedules have changed, our worries have changed, and by changed I mean increased manifold! While we are struggling with a pandemic of global scale, a lot of us have our offices brought into our bedrooms and our school come to our night tables, and yes, having a dedicated study corner is a privilege that many don’t have! Schools are conducting classes online and it is a new experience for everyone involved. Students are now exposed to a lot more hours on the internet, parents are exposed to a lot more parenting as their children get schooled online and teachers are now forced to not just teach but also learn the internet to keep themselves relevant and useful.

With the advent of regular online classes, the restriction on screen hours have reduced considerably for children and this has led to several issues of its own. Uninhibited access to the internet can expose children to all sorts of harmful and offensive content as the web runs sans any borders and therefore, can be the perfect recipe for harming our young ones. Take for instance, the cases of cyberbullying which have risen unusually in past few months, the recent and ongoing bois-locker-room-incident being a case in point! In this article, I would try to flag three issues: (i) why we need to talk about cyberbullying; (ii) why we cannot talk about cyberbullying and not take mental health into consideration; and (iii) who are the different stakeholders responsible in tackling this situation.

Almost everyone in my social circle reacted to the locker room incident in the same way; they were not surprised and it was this lack of surprise that surprised me! It is absolutely heart-breaking to see the generation of my nephews and nieces suffer from the same problems we did. Multiple opinion pieces and feminist analyse related to this have come up in past few days and thus, I would refrain from repeating the obvious and similar arguments. Notwithstanding that, it would be suffice to say that the incident has shaken everyone from a lulling stupor and rightly so. While this awakening was long due and should have happened years ago, the moment now comes as an opportunity (sadly so) for all the stakeholders involved in dealing with teenagers, the internet and the rampant misogyny and rape culture in our society. In this ever online world, safety of our young girls has got to be everyone’s concern.

Sex education is the need of the hour as we cannot expect children to educate themselves over issues of sexual harassment, consent, rape culture and related mental health issues. Granted, that we have made advancements in past few years through sustained movements and on-ground work by dedicated professionals, however, the fact sadly remains that our core issues are still out there wreaking havoc in the lives of teenagers today. As stakeholders, it is our duty to have conversations around gender, toxic masculinity, rape culture and everything in between with our loved ones. This is because such locker rooms find a muted but close resonance in our family WhatsApp groups where the misogynistic and sexist wife jokes are celebrated. We must take into consideration that we can no longer brush things that make us feel uncomfortable and hesitant under the carpet and expect our kids to learn everything on their own and come up as a new breed altogether.

Besides its societal implications, incidents such as these also tend to propel mental health issues among children which often goes unnoticed. We cannot keep on propagating the myopic narrative of mental health issues being just an individual concern completely untouched by the social inequalities. The experience of feeling objectified and threatened by your own peers and even friends is not unknown to most of the young girls. There has to be a push towards having more and more institutional support measures in place. Mental health is still a taboo topic and when we add to it another taboo topic of sexual harassment, what you have is your typical family uncle squirming in his sofa with discomfort and pretending uncomfortably that all of this is not his business. An intersectional dialogue on mental health, gender and family has been long pending and we need to reach out to our children and talk to them about it and this goes beyond telling boys and girls to just behave!

In a world where misogynistic behaviour continues to be normalised in our online spaces, letting this moment slip from our hands would be an unforgivable mistake. It is high time now that we have a curriculum on gender sensitisation as well as mental health. School counsellors cannot solve this issue anymore as it is not an individual but in fact, a social issue. On the familial front, we have to go beyond burdening just the mother with the responsibility of having such conversations. Fathers and others have to lead by example in making their daughters feel safe and being a good role model for their sons.

In conclusion, the gist of the matter is that one must not lose sight of the fact that our issues are interconnected and we cannot talk about the mental well-being of teenagers and not talk about the sexism, rape culture, bullying, and social media’s multiple facets. A collective intervention is the need of the hour and we must address the individual and the structural together. As the good old feminist statement goes, the personal is indeed, political!

Ayushi Khemka
Mental Health Talks India