NCERT releases guidelines for schools to help address student mental health issues

Stress, anxiety, peer pressure, bullying, body image issues – mental health issues adapt differently to different students in a school setting. However, the conversation in space and the awareness of educators and parents remain insufficient. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) recently advised schools to set up mental health advisory committees, as well as dedicated programs that can identify depression, self-injurious behaviors or other problems and to help with early treatment.

The guidelines, entitled “Early detection and intervention for mental health problems in school children and adolescents”, were published in response to a national survey that mapped mental health problems among school children. Among the 3,79,842 students in grades 6-12 surveyed, there was a high prevalence of anxiety, fear of exams and body image issues. Two years of the pandemic, subsequent school closures and limited access to digital resources have also severely disrupted learning. 51% of students said they encountered problems learning online, which only faintly echoes how education and the school as a site of learning have been transformed by the pandemic.

One of the recommendations was that schools set up advisory committees, made up of parents, students, alumni and teachers. “This will raise awareness, plan and implement an annual school mental health program that is age and gender appropriate. Schools should have a provision for identifying behavior, substance use and self-harm, depression and developmental issues, providing first aid and making appropriate referrals, the manual notes.

The students surveyed noted that the anxiety resulted from the lack of mechanisms in place and the absence of support systems to discuss their feelings. The period between grades 6 through 12 is also a formative period, a transition from middle school to high school that brings unique challenges in itself. The report aptly notes that for children in this bracket, there are “identity crises, heightened sensitivity toward relationships, peer pressure, fear of jury scrutiny, anxiety, and uncertainty… for their future admissions, careers, among others [challenges].” Even academics prove to be a source of anxiety as many students feel they would not be “respected” or valued if they did not do well.

One of the main problems raised by the guidelines is the lack of awareness and training of teachers and parents. In India, the taboo around mental health and the myth of hard work both create a culture of willful ignorance of the challenges facing students. A*, 29, told The Swaddle earlier this year about the arduous nights she spent studying for 12th grade exams. “His mother’s care and concern translated into making late-night snacks or bringing coffee, any way to help him get through the night – instead of encouraging plans to more enduring, even compassionate, study that provided time for rest,” noted The Swaddle. According to the NCERT survey, almost 80% of students in grades 9-12 suffer from anxiety due to exams and results.

The rigid prevalence of this culture requires a radical change in the way the family and the school system perceive mental health. “Teachers should be trained to identify early signs in students of attachment problems, separation anxiety, academic refusal, communication problems, anxiety patterns, depressive states, conduct problems , excessive Internet use, hyperactivity, intellectual disability and learning disabilities”. says the report.

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A finding that also emerges from the survey is that 45% of students reported suffering from body image issues. This was more the case for trans students (the survey labeled them “third gender”).

“Teachers should talk about instances of bullying in the classroom and hold students accountable by educating them about bullying. They should provide students with a confidential way to report any incidents that concern them,” the guidelines state.

In doing so, the teacher is also reframed as a “primary helper” who is critical in this channel of detecting early signs of mental health issues. The message is also that the premise of education is not detached from ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ issues of anxiety or stress. Academia, learning, or work are not spaces where a person’s mental health becomes an inconvenience or redundant. Students – especially school children who spend up to a third of their days in school and a total of 220 school days a year across India – could benefit from this prospect.

A limitation of the recommendation in these guidelines is unequal power dynamics. Hierarchical structures and a culture of discipline and authority within schools could make such panels unnecessary, given that students may not easily trust teachers to confide in them. Mental health care should then involve giving students back their agency without subsuming their whole personality under the authority of teachers.

The pandemic has further reinforced the relevance of mental health advisories in schools. The Covid19 learning loss is only beginning to reveal its scale: a recent government survey found that up to 11% of children in grade 3 lacked basic math skills. A survey last year found that up to 92% of children experienced a decline in their language skills. Covid19 has hampered learning and placed children two years behind on their learning goals. “The truth is that most children will be two years behind when they return to school. That in itself has significant ripple effects,” Akshay Saxena, co-founder of Avanti Fellows, told The Swaddle.

But with learning loss, there is a more intangible and abstract aspect of mental health and wellbeing that is harder to quantify and address. The education pandemic would mean greater anxiety and stress around essay exams, one of the metrics reported by the NCERT survey. Moreover, as children spend more time at home, a crisis of loneliness and confinement in abusive homes would add to the mental health burden.

When placed in this context of loss, the role and responsibility of the school changes dramatically. It is a site where education is discussed, but also a space that must actively work to address children’s concerns that persist even before the pandemic.

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