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TBI Blogs: Why Indian Schools Are Providing Mental Health Counselling for Their Students

Incorporating mental health in school education programmes can give a big boost to tackling mental health issues in children and adolescents.

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Mental health for young children, who are the to-be ambassadors of the nation, is quintessential. A variety of psycho-social and health problems affect learning and performance in profound ways. From learning disabilities to autism and Down’s Syndrome, as well as increasing episodes of depression, school refusal, and panic attacks among school children require expanded intervention.

Without keen alertness, children get punished – that correlates with school failure. These problems aggravate as children internalize the debilitating effects of performing poorly at school. Thus, there has been a prolonged practice of assisting teachers to equip them to handle issues at school.

Schools are the secondary sphere of socialization, development, and growth for children. An emphasis on physical health education has existed for more than 100 years, and continues to grow as a part of school curriculum. There has been a renewed emphasis on schools to enhance the mental well-being of young children and their families. Consequently, this has had an impetus on the advocacy of mental health issues in school for holistic development of the youth and preparation of healthy and productive citizens.

A wide range of counseling, psychological, and social-service programmes are now being provided and made available at schools for the same.

According to the most updated census data, approximately 41 % of India’s population is below the age of 20. However, there has been growing burden of mental illnesses in the age group of 15-24 globally, and this has brought mental health into the picture for the last two decades. The prevalence rate of psychiatric disorders in India is 12.5 % among children aged 0-16, and 12 % among the 4-16 year-olds. Suicide death rates in India are among the highest in the world, standing at 36 for every 1,00,000 youth citizens.

Thus, empowerment of children and adolescents is very essential in the context prevailing today in India as there is rapid globalization and urbanization with breaking up of joint families and dwindling traditional social support systems. Psychological problems in children and adolescents, especially behaviour problems and suicides, are on an ever-increasing rise.

Schools can be endowed with a range of strategies that promote positive mental health, like creating safe environments, teaching social and emotional learning, and recognizing the importance of families. Shadow teaching and assisted training methods for children with special needs make education inclusive for all.

School-based and school-linked programmes have been developed for purposes of early intervention, crisis intervention and prevention, treatment, and promotion of positive social and emotional development. Pertinent research also claims that for many youngsters, schools are the primary place for receiving mental health services. For those who come from less-educated and aware backgrounds, or broken homes, schools are the place of emancipation and growth for students.

Mental health activities have been an ongoing process in schools – nevertheless, there is scope for improvisation of intervention.

School mental health programmes for students have been integrated into school curriculum since the 1990s. The World Health Organisation and several international bodies have emphasized the need for these mental health programmes. In the present, there have been several organizations, NGOs, and individuals who have taken up projects to implement mental health awareness programmes at various school levels, including secondary and higher secondary.

These initiatives function in schools in rural and urban settings, including municipal schools, public schools, anganwadis, and private schools. People have widely recognized the need for mental health across the nation in recent times. Along with teachers, the students and parents are also covered under the mental health programmes.

Awareness programmes include talking about what mental health is and why it is important to take care of our mental health, signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, and essentially the importance of early intervention. Intervention programmes involve mental health professionals and screening and diagnosis, along with treatment programmes for common and severe mental health illnesses.

Some of the many organizations working for promoting school mental health include the Manas Foundation, Counseling India, New Horizon’s Child Development Center, and the De Sousa Foundation, and various helplines like Samaritans Mumbai, iCall, Maitreyi, and Cooj, that have been providing emotional support across all age groups throughout the nation.

Sangath, a non-government organisation based in Goa, has developed some modules to aid in the improvement of the health scenario by providing physical, psychological, and social therapies.

Representational Image (Source: By Naquib Hossain (Flickr: BSB. Children 03) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
The MINDS Foundation also works for the cause in rural India, promoting mental health in rural Gujarat. They’ve developed a cost-effective mental health education programme for schools and teachers. They are able to provide mental health education for under ₹4 per child. Educating an individual saves a life, an empowered, understanding child who can help their friends and communities when they are in need of help.

The benefit of such programmes is that the information at once reaches three important stakeholders – students, teachers, and parents – and possibly reduces the risk of vulnerability. The programmes also largely tackle the stigma against mental health since the information comes through an educational platform.

There has been global attention on primary prevention of mental illness and risk reduction to vulnerability to mental illness. The WHO defines Child and Adolescent Mental Health as the “capacity to achieve and maintain optimal psychological functioning and wellbeing. It directly relates to their level and competence in psychological and social functioning”.

It is well known that children and adolescents are at great risk of adopting many risk-taking behaviours and psychological problems. Crime, violence, sexual permissiveness, drug abuse, academic competition, bullying, and school dropouts are on the rise among the youth. These problems have strong impact on their participation in the classroom, scholastic achievement, relationship issues, mental health, and psychological wellbeing. School mental health programmes serve as a ubiquitous tool that promotes positive mental health and prevents mental illnesses.

Promoting competencies in schools can prevent high-risk behaviours and psychological problems, and enhance resilience among children and adolescents.

Western research literature shows promising results in enhancing skills of adolescents, including positive youth development and prevention of violence. Other noted benefits are decreased bullying, self-esteem, peer relations, student-teacher relations, and improved problem solving. There is also proof of better emotional and social awareness.

In India, there is no separate comprehensive policy to deal with child mental health issues. The existing policies stress the need for developing comprehensive child mental health programmes and services at various levels.

However, in reality we need to do a lot of work. The existing programmes restrict themselves to urban settings without addressing the psychiatric needs of adolescents in government hospital settings. Rural India makes up 69 % of the nation. However, it continues to struggle for adequate mental health services as a result of lack of awareness and resources.

Early intervention is essential when it comes to any illness, psychological, behavioural, or common and severe mental health disorders. School-based interventions can reduce risk factors to promote the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.

Expression of emotions, versus suppression, is a crucial component of positive mental health, that schools can, and should, teach. Emotional well-being is largely a result of emotional regulation that children learn early. Research has increasingly focused on the importance of teaching children to express emotions as part of their emotional development. Regulation of emotion leads to better productivity, intelligence, healthy response to situations, and motivation to reach one’s goals.

About the author: Pragya Lodha is an Associate for Programmes, The MINDS Foundation.

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The MINDS Foundation is committed to eliminating stigma towards mental illness through community education.