Opinion

Schools must assume responsibility for laying the foundation of sound mental health of students

Fatima Agarkar
Schools must assume responsibility for laying the foundation of sound mental health of students

In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put out some statistics on the mental health status in India and announced that over 5 crore people suffered from depression. In fact, the world over, the ‘honour’ lies with India as one of the countries with the highest rate of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. The most alarming statistic is that the suicide rates in our country have increased over the past two years and the future does look bleak unless this downfall is corrected. Fortunately, educators, the world over and India are taking the initiative to address this mental health challenge that engulfs us today and threatens us in the years ahead.

Mental health clearly emerges as a top concern and it is critical that one understands its relevance in the context of growth and development especially in young adults. Trends are indicative that it adversely affects adolescent children (Middle & High school in particular) because it has a direct impact on the way they learn, grow and evolve in what is popularly referred to as “vulnerable” years.

While reviewing different perspectives about this important topic, I came across Surgeon General USA (1999)’s well summed up definition, “Mental Health is a state of successful performance of the mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with people and ability to change and cope with adversity.”

In other words, mental health is like the fuel to the engine for a child’s developmental graph – it is how the child thinks (cognition), perceives or senses, emotes or feels, exhibits physical acts (somatic), behaves and responds.

A nation that cannot safeguard the above for its young children will continue to have its challenges ahead, which is why mental health has a ‘larger’ and ‘wider’ impact. Closer to home, as educators, we recognise that children spend on an average of close to 8 hours in school, and calculating to and fro travel, 10 hours of their day, and close to 220 days in the year are spent in the security of a learning institute, schools naturally become responsible as much as parents for the foundation of sound mental health. Schools perhaps edge ahead in taking accountability given the important and productive hours of the day are spent in classrooms than at home. Schools are also “meant” to be grounds for teaching-learning and not simply academic goals but also ensuring that children are socially, emotionally and physically attended to.

So, what’s the school super-power?

Schools have this unique ability to “nip” these challenges by establishing healthy, fair, inclusive and stimulating environments upfront for students by pre-empting dangers that lie ahead, identify early warning signs of an emerging mental health condition and in many cases with the battery of specialists it has access to, the ability to treat mental health in a more scientific and clinical manner rather than trial and error.

I refer to schools as protective “shelters” and the ability to pre-empt and respond to a challenge is far greater than well-meaning family members at home. And as there are rapid changes in the political and social landscape of our communities and nation, it is simply critical that schools lay down a foundation that is conducive and attaches a great deal of emphasis on “sound” mental health.

So, what are some of the ways that a school can contribute?

For starters, a declared vision by the Management and the school leadership team about a “fit” school and not just physically by emotionally as well. With a common goal, teachers, parents and students align to a common cause and can be oriented and made aware of the “what” and “why”. These can be done in various forms - internal communication (circle time in classrooms, assemblies, book club/library), workshops, training, simulations and also inviting guest speakers to communicate experiences that will also serve an eye-opener for all stakeholders. With children, engaging them through case studies and field trips is a seamless way of getting the point across.

With increasing awareness and discussions, and information received in a scientific way, the school can lay down “essential agreements” – anti-bullying, helpline system for reaching out, counselling sessions about body image, conflict resolution, relationship management, time management etc which become channels to communicate, bring clarity and importantly guide these young children and their parents on how to cope.

Creating a mentor system in schools for students to have a “go-to-person” for emotional discussions or simply to “chat/share” and allowing this “non-threatening” approach to getting them to really open up as often they go to the counsellor only when it is too late. This is a winning formula and most progressive schools will think along these lines.

Teachers become true warriors in this desire to create sound mental health set up and training them for “signs” especially early warning signs of potential challenges by being vigilant in their classrooms and through their mentor sessions, in their discussions with parents and even simply cafeteria “gossip”. Checklists and reporting back to the counselling department and the school leadership will ensure that timely strategies are collectively planned, and the child receives the help required in a manner that works for individual children. It is just like when we plan lessons with differentiated strategies, two children in the same class experiencing similar thoughts may require different handling altogether and this must be followed through.

Privacy and confidentiality of conversations shared in strict confidence be it teacher-parent or student-teacher must be respected and cannot become a staff room discussion or a labelling exercise. Therefore, guiding teachers on the “do’s” and “don’ts” is as important as the children and the parents.

In case the challenge is more severe than the “home-grown” strategies deployed, professional help from external sources must become a part of the plan and often this involves intervention beyond school hours, working out the trigger points which can only be handled by professionals or experts with experience in that type of trauma. It is always best to let the experts suggest the next steps as often that is the difference between “save” or “destroy”.

While schools will assume a greater role in defining this foundation and the corrective steps that follow, this cannot happen in isolation. Parents play a key role as discussions that are contrary to what is being practiced in school may lead to more confusion for the child. Teacher-parent partnerships could not be more critical than in the case of mental health and both need to be on the same side, and page for the sake of that young child who we promise to nurture.

The statistics about suicides always alarms me and continues to worry me and therefore as part of the industry, I urge fellow educators to make this an important achievable goal in schools. We cannot lose our children to something that we can easily address. It remains in our control – something that we can contribute to if we simply try. This is our problem, because they are the children in our schools, and we promised to nurture them in sickness and in health!

About The Author:

Ms. Fatima Agarkar is an entrepreneur and Co-Founder at KA EduAssociates, an award-winning Mumbai-based educational start-up with a portfolio that comprises of preschool and high school consultancy, school audits, teacher training, curriculum design, parenting and student engagements

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