Saloni Gupta, a Grade 11 student in Delhi had been a class topper throughout her academic life. A couple of weeks ago, however, she became extremely withdrawn- didn’t want to do the things that she loved to; even stopped speaking to her friends. She would often start weeping without any apparent reason. A visit to the CBSE school counselor, followed by a psychiatrist found that she was suffering from depression, to the utter shock of her parents. Saloni’s story isn’t an isolated incident. If you look around you may know the story of several such Salonis. Statistics show that students all over the world and in India particularly are experiencing a severe mental health crisis. NCRB data from 2022 reveals that student suicides were at a 5-year high. Pick up a newspaper and you are likely to read heart-wrenching stories of suicides of students in Kota, at the illustrious IITs, and more. Very often these are stories where students aren’t able to cope with academic pressures as also with the weight of expectations.

Truly emotional wellness has become the elephant in the room today as young people struggle with mental health. Not without reason. Academic pressures, peer pressure, pressures to conform, and a pandemic that upended life for over two years, have all exacerbated the pressures that young people face, leaving them susceptible to depression, eating disorders, and other mental health crises. In such a scenario, being able to recognize as well as support positive mental health in schools is extremely important. A positive environment can not just help stem these issues and improve outcomes, additionally, early detection and intervention strategies can make treatment easy. Schools are in a good position to effect change as students spend more time in school during the week than with their parents. In fact, teachers, school psychologists & counselors can play a very important role in maintaining students’ emotional health as they are often the first ones to identify any changes in behavior. At Pragyanam, we are totally committed to the cause of the mental well-being of our students and to ensuring that they can take on the challenges that may come their way.

What this requires is an extremely nuanced & humane approach. Some of the aspects involved include:

  • Helping develop critical life skills
  • Promoting social connectedness and having a supportive environment
  • Recognizing signs of distress
  • Encouraging help-seeking
  • Access to mental health care & crisis management procedures

Prevention is better than cure

First things first! As always, prevention is definitely better than cure. Progressive schools are therefore focussing on developing a life skills-based curriculum that instills children with 21st-century skills. Whether it is managing emotions, showing empathy, critical thinking, and more, these skills go a long way in preparing the child for the road ahead. Enough and more research has shown that when children are equipped with these skills, they are better placed to handle the curve balls that life throws at them. Positive outcomes are seen in terms of children developing healthy identities, improved social skills, improved ability to handle emotional distress, and more.

What also works in terms of prevention, is the development of a holistic curriculum that offers opportunities for students to be physically active, take short breaks, indulge their creative side, and more. Importantly, the New Education Policy (NEP) also focuses on not just cognitive development, but also building character and creating holistic and well-rounded individuals equipped with the key 21st-century skills.

A large part of addressing the mental health needs of students is also to offer them a supportive environment where the emphasis is on the process as opposed to the outcome. Moving away from punitive measures to disciplinary practices that focus on accountability is also an important part of the change.

A supportive environment also calls for the fact that children shouldn’t be put in boxes or labeled. In fact, the use of stigmatizing language & attitudes ensures that students are less likely to ask for help when they need it. Using positive psychology to create a safe school community, is therefore key. A very important aspect of it is to model emotionally & mentally healthy behavior & to ensure that speaking about mental health needs is normalized in classrooms. A word of caution here though- ever so often in our zeal to instill students with positivity what we tend to do is to ride roughshod over their feelings & ignore or belittle the issues they are facing. We need to make sure that we do not crush them under the weight of perfectionist expectations. Children who do not feel heard are even less likely to ask for or receive help.

Cure

The other important aspect, of course, is the cure. For this, schools need to be armed with experienced and empathetic mental health counselors who can help with targeted interventions for students experiencing mental health crises or other serious problems. Besides, they need to put in place a robust screening process by developing a strong relationship with teachers. It is imperative to be attentive to children’s behavior. Any significant changes may be a cause for concern and the child may require help. It is more important than ever that teachers learn the signs to know when a student is in trouble so that they can intervene before things become too serious. For students, it could also mean having posters around the school as check-in reminders of their mental health. An open-door policy where students can walk in at any time and share what they are feeling is also key. Empathetic listeners, even if they are not trained as mental health experts, can be important gatekeepers, who can, if the need arises, escalate the issue to mental health counselors.

It goes without saying that school counselors need to continuously keep updating their skills to be able to cater to the many issues that students face. The fact that there could be gender non-conforming students, for example, means that counselors will need to ensure that they are cognizant of such needs

To Sum Up

The first requirement when it comes to positive mental health is for schools to ensure that conversations around mental health are normalized and that it isn’t seen as a taboo subject. It is when essential life skills are integrated into the curriculum, that students really absorb the learning as an essential aspect of everyday life. This way students not only understand its importance but also realize that they are not alone in the journey.

At Pragyanam, we follow a life skills-based curriculum that focuses on essential skills as laid down by the World Health Organisation. These are skills that are needed to lead a happy and satisfied life. Various activities at school are aimed to nurture these life skills and to raise students with a sense of self-worth as also empathy towards others.

Here’s to raising an empathetic & resilient generation that is in touch with their emotions & is equipped to handle this VUCA world!

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