Bringing Change

Neerja Birla on The Need For a Mental Health Curriculum in Schools

Neerja Birla
Neerja Birla on The Need For a Mental Health Curriculum in Schools

Merely 4 countries in the entire world have a total population of 250 million. India, on the other hand, has 250 million children just in school.

Unfortunately, 12% of Indian children between the ages of 4 and 16 suffer from psychiatric disorders.

12% of 250 million is a staggering number – just do the math.

Children have complex but fragile eco-systems that can easily fall prey to a host of behavioural, emotional, learning or mental disorders. In fact, up to 50% of mental, behavioural and psychological problems have their onset during adolescence. The most common mental health issues that youngsters tend to face are: anxiety disorders, depression and eating disorders, along with psychosis and ADHD – these two often being co-morbid. Resulting out of these, are what we call co-occurring disorders that include substance abuse and certain behavioural disorders.

The stories of young kids attempting suicide are the most shocking and horrifying. At an age when children should be running around, playing games and having loads of fun without a care in the world, what would prompt them to even think about something as drastic and dark as ending their lives?

It is the combined duty of parents, teachers and educational institutions to ensure the holistic development of children on a physical, emotional and mental level.

Mental wellbeing is the key to unlocking the unique potential in every child and in ensuring that they can live their life to the fullest. Assessing every child’s state of mind and coping mechanisms at every stage of their formative years and taking the requisite measures to enhance them holds the key to sustained mental wellbeing throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, teachers and school managements have traditionally not been equipped to deal with mental health issues or to manage the emotional well-being of students.

For example, children have always been pulled up for disruptive behaviour. But now, we need to have an understanding of mental health-related symptoms and signs to analyse the reason behind such behaviour before deciding what should be done about it.

Similarly, teachers don’t know that children can be afflicted by the same mental disorders as adults, but their symptoms may be drastically different.

Psychosocial Development refers to Erik Erickson’s theory of psychological development of an individual in interaction with his or her social environment and relationships at different stages in life. At every stage, kids experience a conflict that becomes a turning point in their development. These conflicts either help them develop a positive psychological quality or result in the failure to do so. When children deal successfully with a conflict, they emerge with strong psychological skills that can serve them for the rest of their lives. These skills allow for competence and motivate positive behaviours and actions.

Also, it is a myth that only children who have learning, behavioural or emotional issues fall prey to mental health concerns.

Dr. Stephen Chou, who served on the board of directors at SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), wrote an article where he explained how even gifted children can break down when they experience failure. Sometimes, it takes only one failure for them to believe that they’re not really that gifted or good enough. After that, they may experience shame, doubt, inferiority and even guilt. This is where the proper psychosocial development of a child becomes vital, not just the enhancement of their other skills and talents.

As an educationist and mental health activist, I’ve always believed that mental health education needs to be an integral part of the school curriculum. The time has now come to translate advocacy into tangible action.

Both children and teachers must understand what mental health is and how important it is to the overall growth of children. By creating awareness, allowing children to feel comfortable with their feelings and be open about them from a very young age, we can effectively promote long-term mental wellbeing.

At Mpower, we have just launched our Minds Matter program, which aims to bring about a transformational change in our very approach to the mental health of children right from Grade 1 to 12.

The moot question to be asked, however, is: What does it actually mean to have a mental health curriculum in schools?

It means inculcating a culture of mental health conversations, practices and interventions into the lesson plans.

The Minds Matter curriculum is based on 4 modules: Positive Psychology, Social Emotional Learning, Social Psychology and Mental Health Literacy.

As we have done with Minds Matter, if evidence-based therapeutic practices and interventions are implemented directly into the lesson plans, the curriculum can provide integrative care and create safe classroom environments, both actual and virtual, in collaboration with mental healthcare professionals, for children throughout their formative years.

The objectives of the curriculum have to be simple:

Promoting mental health awareness and literacy in kids, interwoven into their learning process,

Building the students’ resilience to deal with difficulties and stress,

Teaching them effective life skills and coping mechanisms to combat mental health issues, and

Training and giving ongoing support to school professionals and online resources to monitor and promote mental wellbeing among students.

What impact and outcomes can we expect with the inclusion of a mental health curriculum in education?

Firstly, it will promote the preventive aspect of mental health. Teachers and educational institutions will learn how to identify and red-flag signs of mental health issues in their children: a sudden decline in academic performance, variations in behaviour and mood and disciplinary issues – to name just a few. If the warning signs can be identified early on, children can get timely help and intervention.

It will also encourage help-seeking behaviour. Children will not feel isolated or helpless and never feel the need to hide their mental health concerns from the fear of being reprimanded for it or because other children will tease them about it.

In fact, it will make children more accepting of and empathetic towards others who may be facing mental health concerns. In effect, this empathy and tolerance can help eliminate the apprehensions associated with seeking help and also stamp out the stigma associated with mental illnesses.

By having a mental health curriculum in schools, we will not only be able to educate teachers and students about the importance of mental health, but we will also be able to have a decisive impact on the mindsets of the parents as well.

So many parents, even highly educated ones, get into denial mode about their children’s issues due to the overwhelming stigma attached to mental health concerns in India. In fact, children fall prey to the stigma of mental disorders later. It is the parents that fall prey to them first. To truly help children, it is critical that parents make a conscientious effort to approach the mental health of their children with empathy and concern. Parents must come to terms with the realities of the present generation. They face far more challenges than the parents did when they were growing up. Building a collaborative relationship between the school and the parents is extremely crucial to the success of any mental health curriculum.

We’ve all heard of the Butterfly Effect adage: ‘A butterfly beating its wings in Hong Kong can unleash a storm in New York.’

It means that – Change, no matter how small, ends up creating completely different circumstances in a complex system due to the process of amplification.

Introducing a comprehensive mental health curriculum into the school system will be the ‘fluttering of wings’ that will result in unprecedented and colossal positive outcomes in the education system in the years to come.

All in all, a mental health curriculum in schools has become an indispensable necessity, a pressing need that we can no longer ignore. The time has come for society to bring about a trailblazing revolution to our education system. After all, the mental wellbeing of our future generations is at stake.

About the author

Mrs. Neerja Birla is the Founder and Chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust, Educationist and Mental Health Activist.

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