A new “Mental School Health Program” has been introduced in the Indian state of Gujarat. The national daily, Indian Express, reported the school-level program would address mental illness among children in the 4 to 16 age category.
The School Health Program that “[covers] 1.57 crore children state wide”, came into effect way back in 1909, with the first attempt to provide medical care to kids in Baroda (also a city in Gujarat). Over a century later, the same state is once again at the centre of developments in health, with these new measures to assess and act on mental well-being.
The initiative includes a questionnaire for parents and teachers dealing with 16 mental health diseases, including autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, enuresis, and cognitive delay. In a country where there are “only 0.3 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people“, and where stigma is still sky-high, any policy or program that simultaneously provides tools for coping and assesses the genetic or environmental root causes is very, very welcome.
It is certainly encouraging to see institutional support being given to as sensitive an area as mental health. But while education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama praises the initiative for realizing “a comprehensive health project”, there are several uncomfortable aspects of the program.
For one thing, the questionnaire requires details about the social group the parents belong to and what work they do. Dr Hemang Shah’s explains the rationale behind this: “genetic mapping surely has relevance in assessing a child’s mental health.” While that may be, it runs the risk of further institutionalizing classist and casteist biases. And that’s not all.
One of the “mental health conditions” mentioned appears also to be expressing gender identity different from the one assigned at birth.
“Many a time a person feels he or she is trapped in the wrong body, and often goes in for sex change at a later stage in life,” says Shah. “Thus, it is better if we identify such cases at an early age and offer them medical and psychiatric support.” It remains to be seen whether this “support” will come in the form of compassionate guidance and encouragement or as preventive measures and highly controversial conversion therapy. There does not seem to be an integration between the “Mental School Health Program” and Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). This is a cause for some concern as CSE can help break apart the idea that gender and sexual fluidity is abnormal.