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Destigmatising Mental Health In Schools

“MENTAL illnesses are disorders of brain function … and having a mental illness is not a choice or a moral failing. Mental illnesses occur at similar rates around the world, in every culture and in all socioeconomic groups … with 1 in 5 young people suffering from a mental illness.” 

So, why are we as a society still largely silent about the very real and common issue of mental health? Silence breeds stigma, disinformation, and a lack of understanding.

Why is information about cancer or other physical diseases common knowledge but psychological diseases are considered too taboo to discuss openly? 

This lack of transparency is harmful to us as a society. Suicide is at epidemic levels. In a recently released report by the World Health Organization last month, India has the highest suicide rate in southeast Asia and the third-highest suicide rate amongst females globally. According to the most recent global statistics (2016), suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst young people aged 15-29.

Fortunately, by recognising the real risk that overlooking the psychological aspect of violence and undiagnosed mental health illnesses can pose, Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is prioritising children and young people’s safety by taking steps to train principals and teachers in 1.2 million government schools to identify and address mental health issues.

Additionally, in recognition of a general lack of awareness about mental health, Fortis’ Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences plans to train teachers across India on how they can incorporate an intersectional curriculum that addresses mental health to “create a sensitised, educated, and empowered generation [and] promote positive mental health” in addition to their grassroots efforts with the student competition, Psych-ED. This programme promotes psychology and mental health awareness with 12,000 students from 700 schools in 200 cities around India recently competing for the title. 

Some educational boards, including CBSE, have even made it mandatory for schools to provide counsellors to give support to students dealing with a number of struggles, such as peer pressure, body image, anxiety and depression, amongst others.

Delhi’s Directorate of Education introduced a “happiness curriculum” in 2018 that focuses on mindfulness, empathy, and gratitude. The Indian Psychiatric Society has even formed a task force to focus on relevant mental health concerns of college-age students, such as competitiveness, internet and mobile addiction, drug use, and the struggle between the expectations of the traditional and the pull of the modern. 

However, despite an increase in attention on these issues, there are still obstacles. Many counsellors hired by schools do not have a background in psychology, and there is an overall lack of standards or regulation of the counselling practice as “anyone can do a course in counselling from any academy and become a ‘counsellor’”. Students also often express concerns that if they speak with a counsellor that their confidence will not be maintained, and the school administration or parents will be informed or their concerns dismissed. 

One psychiatrist, Soumitra Pathare, at Pune’s Centre for Mental Health and Law and Policy wants to flip what everyone thinks is the solution on its head. While all of these actions being taken by the government and schools are necessary first steps to raising awareness and ending the stigma of silence, he argues that “we need to ask why students are in distress … [rather than] asking what mental health services universities need or why young people seem to have poor mental health”.

The narrative that mental health issues are the fault of the person with poor health increases stigma and makes mental care the dominant solution, telling students the system isn’t the issue but they are, when we should be shifting the focus to how we can make universal and targeted systemic changes to alleviate the unnecessary pressures on young people. 

Obviously, this is a complex issue that we need to approach from all sides to begin to normalise it. What can you do? #40seconds of action

  • improve awareness (share this article!)
  • increase your knowledge 
  • reduce stigma (talk about your mental health struggles or support others who speak out)
  • show people you see struggling that you care. 

-by Micah Branaman-Sharma

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