Last year, Rishika (name changed), a 12-year-old student of a reputed school in the national capital, began feeling restless. She knew something was not right and looked around for help but found none. Her working parents barely had time for her and the teachers in school would only discuss the syllabus and its completion.
Six months later, she was diagnosed with acute depression. The doctors told her parents that in cases like Rishika’s, early detention becomes a key to prevent acute depression.
Rishika was depressed but it was the negligence of her school and family that made her condition worse. Rishika is one of the 12 to 13 percent school students in India- as per Indian Council of Medical Research- who suffer from emotional, behavioural, and learning problems.
Mental health is directly linked to educational outcomes. Schools can enhance the nature and scope of mental health interventions, fill gaps, enhance effectiveness, address problems early, and reduce stigma. According to a report by WHO, for every one million people, there are just three psychiatrists and even fewer psychologists.
Despite the Central Board of Secondary Education guideline making it mandatory for schools to have counsellors on board, only three percent private schools, as per a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), have actual appointment records. For the government schools, the situation is far worse. The question that stands tall in Rishika’s case and hundreds of kids like her is- how could a school counsellor have helped?
In a quest to answer this question, psychologists R. Venkatesan and Shyam S. conducted surveys in 101 national and international schools in Karnataka, only to find out that 19 out of the 101 had employed counsellors for the students.
Students fall victim to the stressful academic environment and the high expectations of their parents. It is debatable whether this rat-race brings out performance in students or not but what is clear from several researches is that it definitely brings out performance anxiety in them.
That’s when the need of a school counsellor becomes even more demanding. Dr. Anjana Dogre, Counsellor for Udgam School for Children adds, “the change in lifestyle, upbringing of kids, medical conditions, growth of technology, nuclear family, and lack of guidance from grandparents has led to a vacuum in children’s’ lives, they need someone to confide their personal problems.”
School kids, who are at the peak of vulnerability at this age, need a neutral and non-judgemental counsellor who not only understands their feelings, but also helps them in ventilation of feelings and emotions.
The Capital’s leading Senior Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of PALS, Deepali Batra says that schools are the logical point of entry to increase the efficacy of mental health services to children and adolescents. And yet the deployment of counsellors in schools remains as an elusive phenomenon in the country.
Experts say psychological problems such as using gadgets excessively, insomnia, suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, school refusal, gaming disorder, substance abuse, relationship problems, conflict with parents, learning and behavioural problems are on rise.
“Most of the children going through such emotional disturbances who receive mental health services at all, the school system has been the sole provider. Offering services in the schools improves access to treatment,” says Batra. Children spend a majority of their time in school and their problems can be identified, dealt with, and improved through counselling thus, avoiding big damages.
“Most of the children going through such emotional disturbances who receive mental health services at all, the school system has been the sole provider. Offering services in the schools improves access to treatment,” says Batra.
Adding to that, school counsellor for Udgam School, Vidhi Shah stresses on the importance of counselling, for not just students, but also their parents who fail to even recognise their kids’ problems, “parents are unable to bring a balance in their parenting approach and that, sadly plays with the child’s emotional & mental well-being.”
So, what is it that counsellors do?
Counsellors are not supposed to act as mentors-they don’t brainwash or spoon-feed. Rather, counsellors advice their students, understand their side of the story, and offer other perspectives. This gives the child the space to learn and grow.
In the present scenario, wherein the stress is so overbearing that one student commits suicide every hour in India, it is high time for the authorities and the parents to address this dire need of the hour. “Counsellors are real people with a real interest in helping students learn and grow,” says Dr. Dongre.
Psychologists stress on the need to prioritize the needs of our kids as mere human beings first; students need to be looked upon as humans too, constantly dealing with emotions, insecurities, and anxieties.
“The teachers in today’s times prefer limiting their classroom interaction to the syllabus and the students, who spend a majority of their time in school, end up suffocating in their own bubble of disillusionment, walled with books and examinations,” says a Delhi University Professor.
In a welcome move, a new Happiness Curriculum has been introduced in over 1,000 Delhi government schools between Nursery and Class 8. According to this, students will have a Happiness period which will be for a duration of 45 minutes.
But the question still remains- are 45 minutes of mental exercises and meditation equivalent to a school counsellor?
Pratap Sharan, a professor in the dept. of psychiatry, AIIMS says, “if implemented well, the Happiness Curriculum should make a difference.” Studies suggest that stress management advances can decrease depression and anxiety.
But then the fact still remains the same, counselling is still as important because the human capital development requires inputs into training as well as health, as ill health impedes learning. Simply put: “healthy (happy) students study better.”
Dr. Sharan’s statement raises concerns for the mental well-being of the youth of our nation. What are we as parents, school authorities, and the policy makers of India doing to produce healthy and happy students. Are initiatives like the Happiness Curriculum enough? Or do we need more?