Essential for both their overall development and academic success, mental health determines how children deal with stressful situations during their formative years. More than just the absence of mental illness, it’s a state of well-being where children can optimise their learning potential and remain connected to their community of friends.
Mental health issues mostly emerge early on, and so it becomes imperative not only for parents but also teachers to be well-informed about the early signs of such distress in children. “Some of the common factors behind mental health issues in children are anxiety associated with preparing and appearing for exams, waiting for the results, and peer and parental pressure,” says Alka Kapur, principal, Modern Public School, Delhi.
Taking note, the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) has recommended that every school set up a mental health advisory panel to ensure the well-being of children. The guideline came in the wake of a survey done by the council, which indicated that most students suffered from exam stress and peer pressure.
Students spend almost half of their waking hours at school for 200 to 230 days in a year. “The school is the foremost fountain of knowledge for children. By default, it becomes the school’s responsibility to ensure a secure and comfortable environment for students. This must include raising awareness about mental health,” says Dr Amit Gupta, senior consultant paediatrician and neonatologist, Motherhood Hospital, Noida.
Given the dearth of trained mental health professionals, an advisory panel in every school can help tap existing resources and manpower to address the much-neglected issue of child mental health. Appreciating the NCERT’s directive, Dr Megha Mahajan, consultant, child and adolescent psychiatry, Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru, says: “It will help formulate mental health programmes at the school level and not only create awareness about mental health but also help in its early identification and intervention. Such panels can also help assess mental health issues in schools from different perspectives.”
Even before the pandemic, mental health problems were on the rise among children due to the growing pressure of achieving all-round excellence. “The pandemic merely opened the floodgates and brought to the fore issues due to reasons such as greater social media usage; pressure of being proactive on all platforms at all times; cyber bullying, especially due to online classes; reduced outdoor activity because of busier schedules; and irregular sleep and eating cycles,” says Mahajan. The worst affected during the pandemic were children who had pre-existing mental health issues or faced academic difficulties or those with special needs.
Educationists say schools need to regularly organise mental health programmes and provide psychological support to children. “Mental health programmes should be held to help teachers identify key problems among students related to attachment and separation, communication, anxiety, conduct, excessive internet use, hyperactivity, intellectual disability and learning disabilities,” says Kapur. The NCERT’s guidelines can be effective in addressing these issues and the efforts should involve all stakeholders—principal, teachers, parents, students, and even the school alumni.
To start with, parents and teachers should be oriented to be able to spot the early signs of mental health issues, behavioural and anxiety problems and developmental difficulties among children. “Building resilience among children involves they being able to handle challenging situations. Schools should foster this skill. Schools should strongly emphasise on understanding children’s emotions. Children should be heard out with an open mind. An open-door policy should be implemented before implementing the NCERT’s recommendations,” advises Gupta.
Children should be provided opportunities to be able to interact with a counsellor, a senior, or even a volunteer, who can give them a patient and sympathetic hearing and come up with solutions. Mahajan suggests that schools encourage hands-on and project-based learning for students, reduce homework and encourage children to finish assignments in the school itself. They can also include basic relaxation exercises, mindfulness techniques and yoga along with sports and extra-curricular activities, and do life-skills drills in classrooms to teach children how to manage their emotions, solve their problems and deal with failures.