I believe that the primary role of education is to prepare each child to fulfil their innate potential. The school years are a time of rapid learning – not just academics but emotional intelligence, as well as social and life skills. Each school year, children deal with new challenges – the increasing pressure of academics, the evolving complexities of peer relations, as well as their own changing bodies and emotions.
Today, we’re seeing rising instances of depression, anxiety, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, eating disorders, gaming and gadget addictions, insomnia, substance abuse, relationship issues with parents and peers, learning disorders and other behavioural problems, etc.
According to a 2017 report by WHO, 25% of adolescents are depressed or feel hopeless, 11% are distracted and have a hard time focusing, 8% face anxiety, and 10% lack the social skills to form close friendships. Children today have to deal with a lot more stressful triggers than previous generations – the incredible pressure to perform well in exams and get into a good college, figuring out the balance between following passion and earning a living, dealing with failures, rejections and setbacks in personal and professional life, as well as managing relationships with parents, friends, peers, etc.
In order for them to successful navigate these challenges and emerge as confident, well-adjusted adults, they need the right kind of training and guidance. This is what a mental health curriculum hopes to achieve – to help them understand their feelings and have empathy for the feelings of others, to help them develop resilience and confidence to face problems, to proactively practice self-care, to develop communication and conflict resolution skills, and most importantly to learn help-seeking behaviour when they feel they can’t deal with something on their own. This is not just for students alone – teachers and parents need to be as much a part of this process.
One student commits suicide every hour in India. I believe that mental health education in schools can play a crucial role in helping to halt the rise of this terrifying trend. Making mental health a part of early education will help develop their emotional intelligence, giving them the tools, they need to take care of their own mental health, as well as lay the foundation for a healthy attitude towards self-care. We’ve heard of the 3 ‘R’s in education – reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. With mental health education, we add a few more crucial ‘R’s – resilience, relationship skills, respect and responsibility for life.
Growing up in a nurturing ecosystem that sees you as more than a ‘marks-scoring machine’ and having a syllabus that takes into account the lessons beyond the academic will make a world of difference in the kind of adults these students grow up to be. Some of the immediate actions that schools can put in place are:
1. Talk About Mental Health – make it a part of the curriculum and the way of life so as to increase awareness and reduce stigma. Through regular workshops, activities and classes, students, teachers and parents need to be a part of open discussions about mental health, which will also make it easier to identify warning signs early on.
2. Create a Safe Space – ensure that the school culture and environment is one that gives students a sense of safety and belonging. This is not only about being able to talk about mental health without fear of stigma or effecting anti-bullying policies but also about having good teacher-student relationships and a system that lets students feel valued and heard.
3. Ensure Support Systems – put in place an infrastructure and processes to deal with mental health concerns both from a preventive and curative point of view. Who can students talk to? When can they do so? What are the things that can/must be done when faced with a concern? Everyone from teachers and counsellors to the non-teachings staff have a role to play in this.
4. Train Teachers in Mental Health First Aid – have workshops and training sessions where teachers can regularly update their skills and knowledge when it comes to spotting early warning signs and understanding how to respond to various mental health concerns.
Just as we start with the basics and work up towards complex topics in academics, the mind too must be developed and trained with good mental health practices. Acceptance of mental health, building a strong support system of parents, educators and counsellors, adapting the syllabus to educate the whole child and not just the brain, and making mental health a way of life – there’s nothing more important than making sure our education system evolves to this as soon as possible.
Education goes well beyond academics. Teaching life skills and resilience has become imperative. This is the only way to make sure that we raise children who have the knowledge, life skills, and the strength of mind and character to face any challenges that the future might bring.
About The Author:
Neerja Birla is Founder & Chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust
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