Are schools in India doing enough to help students manage their mental health?
At the age of 16, Rajesh*, a student from a reputed school in Chennai began feeling disturbed and scared of going to school, dreading interaction with his peers. On the afternoon of the school’s Annual Day function in 2016, he was brutally assaulted by his fellow school students. Around five of his peers held him down and tried to choke him. They also slapped him, Rajesh says.
He recalls that he had been haunted by the incident and had seeked around for help. Afraid to tell his parents, he didn’t get an opportunity to share the incident of horror he suffered with anyone in his school.
"Deep down I know I am strong, but I want to get over that as soon as possible. I usually force myself to cry so that I'll get over the feeling soon, but most of the time I am not able to shed tears. I always feel like I should have reacted that day, but I froze and I wasn't able to do anything at that moment,” Rajesh said.
One year later, he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder. Adjustment Disorder occurs when a person has difficulty adjusting to or coping with a stressful event. It's symptoms include stress, a sense of sadness or hopelessness. Other physical symptoms include headaches, insomnia, low energy and body ache.
Addressing one’s mental health is a major scope of betterment for students but the stigma surrounding the issue has left many students in need of help go unnoticed. Left untreated, student’s mental disorders can cause a number of problems both at home and in the classroom, affecting the way they learn, behave, and handle their emotional challenges.
The advantage schools possess
The time spent at school has a say on the behaviour and lifestyle of students. This is where the school managements can intervene and provide a platform for help. By providing access to counselling and experts, schools can have in-house counsellors to address the issues affecting the students. This can also help them in developing their emotional quotient, said Prince Gajendra Babu, an educationist from Chennai.
Schools not only hold the responsibility of providing students with a safe environment, but to enhance the awareness of mental health and remove the shame and stigma associated with it. Despite several initiatives taken by the government, like making it mandatory for CBSE schools to have counsellors, the larger question is how effectively are these norms being implemented? What about the other boards of education? Are students able to access support and guidance?
In the search for answers to these questions, Psychologists S Venkatesan and HR Shyam conducted a survey in across 101 national and international schools in Karnataka and found that only 19 out of 101 have employed counsellors for the students.
What schools actually do?
Most of the government schools and very few private schools in Karnataka, bring in NGOs to conduct programmes, which concentrate on building awareness about mental health issues. These welfare organisations make it a point to discuss about health and emotional concerns.“NGOs have conducted awareness programs related to menstrual hygiene and child abuse, they make sure that the kids interact in the events” said Deepa, the Head Mistresses of GKMPS, Ganganagar Middle school, Bengaluru.
In some cases, teachers claim that students feel comfortable and secure to rely upon them in sharing their hassles. “If we are able to identify issues like lack of conceptual learning, adjustment issues with peers, pressure from parents or adolescent problems, we talk with the children and we make sure that we are in a position to help them. If necessary we involve the parents as well” said Sharada, a teaching staff at the Government High School, Mysuru.
But it’s not the case where all teachers can be expected to maintain a friendly relationship with students and have a tendency to observe their behavioral changes, that could signal a mental health issue. The presence of fear and respect in the student-teacher relations, sometimes poses as a barrier in free interaction, Deepa said.
“Some teachers bond with students and they give the strength of reliability and support to them, but the majority of them are reluctant to make an extra effort and they would rather focus only on academic goals.” she added.
Rijul Ballal, a psychologist from Bengaluru, said that most students are unaware about counselling, psychological treatment and how it can help them, “Most students are unaware about counselling and other psychological treatments, and it gets even more difficult as the parents and teachers turn a blind eye to it. If the staff is sensitive and if they approach a child’s issue with a serious note, they can make the entire classroom experience an easier one”.
Role of a school counsellor
Throughout the day, students spend more time in schools than they spend with their parents. So it is expected from the teaching staff and counselors to notice concerning changes in behavior. The major part of the counsellor’s work is to recognise and respond to signs, such as sudden changes in academic participation and regularity in classes, disciplinary issues or if the children are facing problems at home.
In Rajesh’s case, a counsellor would have provided individual focus to him and to the issue which affected his mental health and academic well being and would have also referred external help which may include short-term counseling or medical assistance, Rijul said. School counselors allocate much of their focus to designing and implementing programs that promote the intellectual and personal success of the kids.
“Students of any age might want counselling. By denying what they need we are limiting the access to help. An expert can guide a person when he/she is not sure about discussing their problem with their close ones. This is a very important stage of development for them, so if we do not address their issues at the right time, they might face serious repercussions.” added Rijul.
Educational outcomes are proportional to mental health
Emotional quotient (EQ) can briefly be defined as a score of determination of one’s ability to control and express emotions and to manage interpersonal relationships in an effective manner. It is essential to possess sufficient EQ, so that students can arrive at a position where they can manage their social and emotional needs and give their best in co-curricular and educational activities. Multiple researches have proved that kids with mental health difficulties exhibited low intellectual performances, Gajendra Babu said.
“Instead of asking the child to listen to them (parents and teachers), for once, they can listen to what the child has to say. That is the only way to encourage kids to express themselves in a vibrant manner” he added. It is highly crucial for students to seek help when they are unable to cope with their life’s challenges, he says, while adding that students must receive the necessary resources, support and care in order to succeed in their academic and personal lives.