Fostering Mental Health:

Ensuring Mental Wellbeing of Children by Schools & Educators

In the World Happiness Report 2019 produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions in partnership with the Ernesto Illy Foundation, India ranked 140 on the Cantril ladder. In 2018, India stood at 133. The report, an assessment of “how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, according to their evaluations of their own lives”, measured the national annual average against six variables including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption. Finland, Denmark, and Norway lead the list of 156 countries.

3,012

Schools and educators must realize that children with mental health issues may display varied behavioural tendencies – aggressiveness, shyness, perfectionism, etc. From this perspective, the classroom environment and teacher-student relationship become the centre of the intervention. Schools must affect the training of the educators to look at behavioural problems with a diagnostic lens.

The state of India’s children and adolescents does not suggest a promising future. Of its 430 million children and adolescents, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), nearly 50 million Indian children have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and disorders. The number is likely to increase if adolescents are added to the statistics. About 12.5% of children between 0 and 16 years suffer from psychiatric disorders. Among 4-16-year-olds, the percentage remains at 12%. A young population of this magnitude requires consistent intervention and support for its development in terms of physical and mental health. While India’s focus has been primarily on physical health – policies on infant health, immunization, and nutrition have been underway under the different incumbent governments. Mental health, particularly child and adolescent mental health, requires measures and strategies for India to tap into the demographic dividend that its children and adolescent represent.

The World Health Organization describes mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (WHO 2001a, p.1). Mental health, an important aspect of wellbeing contributes to economic and social benefits at a larger scale; at the level of the individual and community, mental wellbeing brings optimal physical health and positive relationships. In addition to the state and family influencing child mental health, schools and educators are well placed to promote mental and emotional wellbeing.

What is the Goal of Mental Health?

For schools to understand their role in the promotion of mental wellbeing among children, they must understand their goal. Positive mental health is not the same not having a mental illness. Additionally, a child’s mental health is not standalone rather it is affected by factors that are often outside the control of the child. Factors such as family’s socioeconomic wellbeing (poverty, social exclusion, housing instability, and low income), parents’ physical and mental health, and chronic stress can impede normative development. Children with mental illnesses may show one or more of the following – behavioural or conduct disorders, developmental disorders, and emotional disorders. In all these circumstances, children are particularly vulnerable and if not successfully improved, may carry the mental health difficulties throughout their adult lives.

The question that begs an answer is what kind of mental health we want for our children? What do practices for improving mental health look like? According to Samuel R. Laycock, a mentally healthy individual has three main characteristics:

  • She has self-respect and awareness of her shortcomings.
  • She is able to maintain healthy relationships that are she is interested in others, has the ability to trust others, and can be part of a group when necessary.
  • Lastly, she is able to deal with problems, make decisions, and set goals. She is aware of her responsibilities and is not overwhelmed by her emotions

It must be acknowledged that the objective of education is not only imparting arithmetic, language, reading, and writing to the child. According to Robert L. Sutherland of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Hygiene, education has the task to teach children and adolescents to live life well. And, schools are the most prominent spaces for programs pertaining to positive mental health.

Certain other goals may include the child’s need for independence, affection, belonging, achievement, and recognition. Drawing from the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Needs (1943), a child also requires healthy self-esteem and a sense of personal worthiness. Lastly, her need to develop and live up to her potential must be taken into consideration when designing any policy for child and adolescent mental health programmes. The task is not an easy one. However, schools and educators must understand that their role is not limited to developing the intellect of the child. Unless the emotional needs of a child are met, she cannot learn.

What Can Schools/Educators Do about Mental Health?

Schools and educators must realize that children with mental health issues may display varied behavioural tendencies – aggressiveness, shyness, perfectionism, etc. From this perspective, the classroom environment and teacher-student relationship become the centre of the intervention. Schools must affect the training of the educators to look at behavioural problems with a diagnostic lens. Using this perspective will help them understand that each behaviour displayed by the child is an attempt on her part to fulfil an unmet need (a need most often created by its absence in her environment at home or community). In addition, educators must be trained to find alternative solutions to managing children’s behaviours. For instance, punishments effective for a stable child may cause irreparable damage to a child with emotional or behavioural disorders. However, it should be understood that bringing the diagnostic lens with the classroom is not aimed at making therapists out of educators. Rather, the objective of this perspective is to help make teachers more effective at what they do.

Schools and educators working for promoting positive mental health among children require considerable support. Educators, considering their existing workloads and personal challenges, may require constant support from systems at work. This could be in the form of seminar discussions, personal conversations with the principal or peers, and training and counselling to overcome their personal challenges and emotional dysregulations. What is important is that school as an institution with its principal, teachers, counsellors, social workers, and/or visiting educators come together to find solutions to promote mental health among children.

Schools and educators need to develop a more meaningful relationship with parents and guardians. Both stakeholders must understand that, according to Samuel R. Laycock, the behaviour of the child “are a barometer to the stresses and strains he is subjected to at home and in the community.” (417). Casual contacts between parents and educators may not help as much as engaged discussions in which both come together not so much to express disappointment in the child but to share her experiences to understand her behaviours better. Laycock suggests 15-20 minutes of engaged discussions between parents and educators twice a year to help achieve this.

Schools must allow all students to fulfil their needs of achievement – that is the curriculum forced on each child must be removed to create a learning environment in which the individual child learns best. The Detroit School Mental Health Project conducted between 1947 and 1952 concluded that children experience good mental health when their individuality is revered in the classroom (426). The project helped establish the presumption that when educators are more attuned to children, their humanity, and their fallibility, the environment promotes mental hygiene. Unfortunately, experts ensure that each educator has at least forty students under her tutorship forcing her to resort to standard methods of teaching and curriculum implementation. Good teaching methods enable students to develop skills necessary for dealing with problems and inspire them to undertake experimentation, investigation, and creative endeavours. Providing for the individual differences of each child is necessary without which we fail as a society to promote positive mental health among its children.

At the level of the administration, policies that enforce positive self-esteem in children should be encouraged. Educators must come together to deliver positive policies with respect to retention, promotion, competition, examination, and breaches of discipline. The objective of such policies must be upon the factors that have contributed to individual problems rather than addressing the symptoms of the same. Discriminatory policies such as those practised at the time of admissions and examinations can be removed. Where necessary, they must be reviewed keeping at their centre the mental wellbeing of the child than the academic performance of the school and educators.

Ambassadors of wellbeing that is, student role models who emulate positive mental health, good relationships, and overall positive personalities can be appointed. These peer counsellors can facilitate wellbeing programmes that focus on health, values, life skills, among other adolescent-related issues.

Schools and educators working for promoting positive mental health among children require considerable support. Educators, considering their existing workloads and personal challenges, may require constant support from systems at work.

Case Studies

Mental health affects all aspects of a child’s life. The implementation of school-based programmes for children and adolescents is key in developing long-term benefits such as less anxiety and depression, improved physical health, and less substance misuse. Additionally, improved productivity results from such interventions. One such example is the introduction of the “Happiness Curriculum” in the government-run schools in Delhi. The curriculum intends to achieve mental health awareness among children and includes components such as activities, expression days, mindfulness, and stories. Children have the opportunity to understand their feelings; in addition, the program also focuses on the training of teachers to use the curriculum to help children.

At an international level, Mindful Schools, an organisation working on training educators, mental health professionals, and parents on mindfulness. According to the organisation, educators need support in offering support and guidance to students in the classroom. That they experience stress and burnout affects their performance and cultivating for children and adolescents mindful learning environments. A mindful educator has better skills in emotional regulation in children, “focus, and engagement, as well as improved connection with students and the ability to deliver school curriculum.” In addition, today’s children require a way to help them cope with anxiety, trauma, stress, distraction, and isolation that they face. By learning effective ways to cope and calm themselves along with supportive environments, children can gradually learn to build resilience and meet the demands placed on them.

Margaret Hepworth’s The Gandhi Experiment is bringing values education, “tools, and resources to build a more positive world. In addition, “Collaborative Debating” has been an educational tool for social change that creates a positive new framework for debate. The purpose of introducing values education is to develop global citizens who will use conflict resolution, forgiveness, reconciliation, and anger management to challenge “apathy and despair to a point of action, whereby they are able to translate their own ideas for positive change into action.”

Some other organisations promoting mental health in schools in India include New Horizon’s Child Development Centre, Sangath, Manas Foundation, Counselling India, and De Sousa Foundation.

Conclusion

Adequate mental health services need to reach children in the rural and urban areas in India. While this is still a struggle for a developing country, the discussion on mental health has been initiated. School-based interventions at the level of the individual school are the easiest considering that we can wait for a large scale program to begin. Research has shown that it is the one-on-one interaction with the educator that affects the mental health of a child irrespective of the community’s perspective of mental health. Emotional wellbeing is a right that every child and adolescent has. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” implying that mental health is an integral element if a child’s overall health is to be guaranteed (WHO 2001, p.1).

Ambassadors of wellbeing that is, student role models who emulate positive mental health, good relationships, and overall positive personalities can be appointed. These peer counsellors can facilitate wellbeing programmes that focus on health, values, life skills, among other adolescent-related issues.

Rathi R has worked as an academician and in the non-profit sector with adolescents and young adults. She teaches Psychology and writes on mental health. She has a Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Delhi.