An educationist urges schools to prioritise the mental well-being of students and not just their academic scores
Even way back in 2017, a World Health Organisation (WHO) study stated that one in four children in the age group of 13-15 years in India suffers from depression. In the post-pandemic era, the mental health of the youth and children is a matter of particular concern. According to a 2021 UNICEF and Gallup global survey, in over 21 countries, roughly 1 in 5 young people aged 15-24 have reported depression.
Educationist and founder of the TreeHouse chain of schools, Rajesh Bhatia is worried that school-going children already dealing with severe academic stress could now also be facing pandemic-related anxiety and residual fear or grief. He says, “Much before the pandemic in 2019, The Indian Journal of Psychiatry had mentioned that at least 50 million children in the country are affected by mental health issues. The severe isolation disrupted academics, and the absence of socialisation during the COVID-19 pandemic have further exacerbated the situation. This is why it is important for schools to not just prioritise academic results but also the mental well-being of students.”
Here we break down five ways to address mental health issues in schools —
1. Create a safe space for sharing
Harvard University defines psychological safety as “the climate in which one feels candid” and that is why safe spaces for communication, counseling, and sharing are essential in schools. “It is important for teachers to be sensitive to any subtle or drastic changes in behavior or demeanor, and lend an ear to their concerns so that students can easily confide in them,” Bhatia says. Educators, he says, must be trained to be empathetic, patient, and non-judgemental and not treat any issue as trivial because only then will they inspire trust in children. More complex psychological problems can be addressed by a trained counselor within the school or outside in synergy with parents. It takes a village to raise children and there should not be any gaps in the caregiving at home or in the support system at school when it comes to mental health.
2. Zero discrimination policies are a must
An educational institution is a place where students of various cultural and socio-economic backgrounds gather under one roof to study and Bhatia observes, “This is why all schools should have zero discrimination policies. Administrators and staff members must ensure that no child is discriminated against over factors like financial status, gender, caste, religion, or sexual orientation. Even subtle discrimination can cause intense psychological stress.” The non-discriminatory policies should also extend to the in-class protocol followed by students.
3. Take a firm stand against bullying
Bullying in school can cause lasting trauma if left unaddressed and Bhatia believes all schools must have a clear and firm policy to counter verbal, physical, and emotional bullying with strict disciplinary action. He says, “From formative to senior years, schools must ensure that no child is bullied or targeted in bathrooms, classrooms, playgrounds, or school buses. Vigilant school staff and an empathetic administration committed to the safety of the students can not only stem bullying in the bud but also prevent it from happening in the future. Schools must also encourage children to fearlessly speak up and report any untoward incidents targeting them.”
4. Aim for holistic development of children
Bhatia cites American psychologist Howard Gardner’s book, ‘Five Minds for The Future, which outlines five mental abilities that make a child happy and successful. With a disciplined, synthesizing, creative, respectful, and ethical mind, a child can develop into a well-rounded adult. He adds, “But before that can happen, holistic education must be provided for a child to develop all aspects of his/her personality. Co-curricular activities like music, dance, sports, arts and crafts, drama, physical exercises and literary exposure help tap the inner resources of a child and also provide her/him tools to deal with inevitable setbacks in life. Mindfulness and wellness strategies that include Yoga and meditation could also help students to deal with stress and anxiety.”
5. Organise empowering workshops
Bhatia believes regular workshops and seminars in schools are needed to address mental health issues and sensitive, ‘taboo’ topics like menstruation, consent, body shaming, drug abuse, and child abuse. Schools can invite experts and counselors who can interact with the students and guide them to protect their personal space and physical boundaries, teach the difference between good and bad touch and instill the confidence in them to instantly report any kind of abuse and seek help when needed. Bhatia says, “These are issues that must be discussed with children at home and in school so that they always feel safe and protected mentally, emotionally, and physically.”