New Delhi: Shweta Mathur has 700 'friends' on a popular social networking site. Yet, when she sat in a psychologist's office after her parents' suspected suicidal tendencies, she said she didn't have a "real friend". In an increasingly connected world, the boundary between the real and the virtual is blurring. Mental health experts say this is a key reason for rising cases of depression among youngsters, driving some to suicide.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 135,445 people committed suicide in India in 2012 - an average of about 15 suicides an hour. A large number of the suicides were in the 15-29 age group.
"Adolescent suicides have quadrupled in the last two decades. In 90 percent of the cases, the person was suffering from an undetected and unidentified psychiatric disorder," Samir Parikh, director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Hospital, told IANS.
He added that in most cases, the underlying depression takes root for months before an event, like a failed love affair or bad academic result, becomes the final breaking point.
Changes in the social structure and lack of interpersonal touch are some of the main factors that contribute to increasing vulnerability of the young.
"We have moved away from joint family to nuclear family, and now to the micro-nuclear structure where young people stay alone. This means that the support system when a child is growing, of having someone to share his feelings with even if both parents are not there, is now missing," said Sayar Ansari, psychologist at the Columbia Asia Hospital.
"Field sports which was given a lot of emphasis earlier and encouraged interpersonal contact is also increasingly being replaced by virtual gaming. All of this leaves a void."
Mental health expert Sameer Malhotra of Max Hospital goes on to say that while social networking is not a villain, and that it's "good to be connected", it's important to recognise that there are flip sides to it as well.
"Social networking can be exploited because it's a public platform which one can misuse and use foul language to display emotions. There have been cases of vulnerable people being victims of group bullying.
"Plus, too much of anything is bad. Staying up late to 'connect' with friends virtually and losing on your sleep can cause neurochemical changes, and this along with lack of interpersonal contact with family, no clear goals and high competition levels can all lead to emotional turmoil," Malhotra added.
Added Deepak Raheja, psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Paras Hospital: "Kids, especially in the urban set up, are raised with all the luxuries and hardly face any difficulties. So when they grow up and face failure, sometimes they cannot cope with it and withdraw. Then again, unlike earlier times when choices were limited, now there is plenty of choice (careerwise) but youngsters don't pursue one goal for too long and give up, sinking into gloom."
There is no simple solution to such problems, experts say, but a beginning must be at home, with good parenting.
"Parents need to spend ample time with their children, talk to them and encourage interpersonal communication with others. They also need to tell them that success is important but failure is not the end of everything," Ansari said.
"It's also important to tell adolescents to always look at the big picture and think beyond material acquisition," Raheja added. "The ability to detach and maintain a good work-life balance is very important."