Education is perhaps society’s most crucial responsibility. It is commendable that educational institutions and teachers impart knowledge to students, nurture their talents and gifts, imbibe values and disciplines in them, lay emphasis on their physical well-being and prepare them for social challenges.
But sadly, most educational institutions and teachers are not yet fully equipped to understand the mental health issues and emotional well-being of students.
The same is true for parents. Most parents fail to spot the signs of mental concerns in their children. And even when they do, so many parents get into denial mode about what is happening to their child. Sadly, there is great stigma attached to mental concerns in our country – even amongst the educated sections. But this attitude must go. Parents must understand how fragile their children’s mental well-being is and be proactive in assessing it.
Students everywhere face a range of issues – racial, sexual or religious discrimination; low self-esteem; body-shaming; sexual challenges; emotional issues; family-related problems; exams-related pressures; monetary hurdles and substance addiction. Their complicated eco-systems can easily fall prey to a host of behavioural, emotional, learning or mental disorders, including – intellectual disability, neurodevelopmental disorders, disruptive behaviour disorders, eating disorders, depression and bi-polar disorder – to name just a few.
Alarmingly, psychological concerns in children are on the rise, especially behavioural issues and suicides. Twelve per cent of Indian students between the age of four and 16 suffer from psychiatric disorders, out of which 2%-5% have serious concerns like autism or bi-polar disorder. Shockingly, every one hour a student commits suicide in India.
The need of the hour is to improve the early identification of mental health concerns in students by educating teachers, school management and parents about the symptoms and patterns of mental issues.
Mental health awareness workshops and programs need to become a regular feature in schools. Parents and teachers must become equipped to spot and red-flag signs of mental illness in students: a sudden decline in academic performance; variations in behaviour and mood; outbursts of anger and hostility; an overwhelmingly negative or pessimistic approach to life; disciplinary issues; drastic changes in sleep patterns or appetite; sudden withdrawal from family and friends; and talking, surfing or writing about taking one’s life.
The Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) program can be implemented to improve the situation. It is a pioneer program that is having an immensely positive impact across the globe. It empowers those who are regularly involved with young people between the age of 12-25 – including parents, teachers, school staff and health-services workers – with the tools to help students facing mental health crises. A 14-hour certified course from Australia trains lay people to understand first-aid and the basic hygiene of mental-health concerns, and also become the vital first point of contact and care.
And then, there is the omnipresent and overbearing stigma attached to mental issues that one needs to contend with. Parents, teachers and educational institutions need to make a conscientious effort to fight these stigmas and protect the delicate minds of students from getting affected by them.
Educational institutions must also have psychological counselling programs in place to help students deal with their issues in confidentiality and in a comfortable environment. Every child’s coping mechanism is different. Hence, the counselling programs must be flexible, to cater to the needs of each child individually. If needed, a student must be referred to a mental healthcare professional for timely intervention. Treatment and recovery are definitely possible through counselling, therapy and medication.
To ensure the holistic – physical, emotional and mental – well-being of children, parents, teachers and educational institutions need to unite in their efforts. After all, the mental health and well-being of our future generations is at stake.
Neerja Birla is Founder & Chairperson, Mpower