By Ritika Potnis:
Recently, on a Friday evening after a hectic week filled with work, I breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of a break; however, the somber mood continued until I got home. When I was just about to relax, my nephew came up to me with a concerned expression and exclaimed, “you look depressed!”
I was startled as I did not expect him to know about depression. To satisfy my curiosity, I asked him about the source of his knowledge. I was pleasantly surprised to know that he had learned about depression in his school’s ‘Counseling Period.’
My nephew’s innocent yet accurate description of depression as “being sad for a very long time” made me aware of the Educational Counseling Services being imparted at the school level. As I explored further, I found myself in the groundbreaking domain of ‘School Counseling.’
Educational Counseling Services have been a part of our academic system for a long time now. The earliest knowledge of guidance and support of this nature can be traced back to 1980’s. The National Policy of Education (1986) and Program of Action (1992) introduced counseling services in education and also, emphatically stated the need for parallel infrastructure for vocational and career guidance in educational institutions. Today, the scope of counseling has expanded to include classroom discussions and mental and physical health issues, along with remedial help for students of all age groups and background. The National Curriculum Framework (2005) views guidance and counseling as a part of the curriculum. It aims to assist and facilitate overall development of students in schools and colleges.
Many private schools in Mumbai have a school counselor and students of all classes have compulsory ‘Classroom Session Activities’ as part of their curriculum, also known as ‘Counseling Period’.
As I went around speaking to students of various schools, school counselors, parents and teachers about the ‘Counseling Period’, I came across interesting facts regarding mental health in classrooms and inclusive education. Ashwini Barot, a 6th-grade student, explained to me, “In our counseling period, we play memory games in our class. The teacher also explains that when we are angry, we scribble hard and fast, and when we are sad, we scribble very slowly. We are asked to express when we are feeling either of it.”
I was enlightened on the finer details of the counseling program by Pooja Rajiwadekar, a mental health expert and school counselor. According to her, “Classroom Session Activities are modeled on the Life Skill Education, designed by World Health Organization (WHO) for the overall development of school children and Adolescent Education Program for adolescents in classrooms. These programs begin from the 1st standard onwards and aim at social and emotional development. They also encompass issues of personal safety such as good/bad touch and personal hygiene. The Adolescent Education Program talks majorly about frustration and frustration tolerance, peer pressure, dating violence and puberty and suggests to the students effective measure and skills to deal with them.”
The USP of the Life Skill and Adolescent Education program lies in the fact that it is crafted to further the physical and mental development of students of all ages. This difference was clearly visible in the responses of students between 3rd and 10th grade. Rhea Tauro, a 4th grader, said to me in an interview, “Our teacher makes us write about things we like and dislike, draw a life event and we are also asked to complete sentences such as When I get angry I___.” Ashwini added, “I learnt about myself and my friends through the counseling period.” Jyoti Nair, a 10th grader, explained, “my counseling period and teacher have helped me understand how to deal with peer pressure and expectations of parents and relationships; I can talk to my parents and even the counselor effectively about personal issues bothering me.” Sanika Sanjeevan, who passed 10th-grade last year, told me that, “The counseling period helped me overcome exam stress and taught me how to deal with hurtful emotions.” She added, “That was the first time, I met a counselor, and now I am actively thinking of a career in psychology.”
Another unique feature of the program is that it involves parents, teachers, counselors, and students in meaningful discussions and activities. Vinita Tauro, mother of Rhea Tauro said to me, “As a parent, I am glad that the school conducts counseling activities as children may be comfortable sharing things with trained professionals. This activity also helps me understand my child better and makes her confident in expressing herself.”
As a participant observer in a neighborhood school, I came across some children with special needs studying with so-called ‘normal’ students. This reminded me of the Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan (SSA), an initiative of the central government which is in effect since 2000. The SSA makes inclusive education compulsory, which also means that individuals with mental or physical disability share the same classroom with the normal students. Following the proposed guidelines of the Mental Health Act and the Right to Education, the SSA also helps blur classroom biases and focuses on those excluded giving them their due rights.
Radha Shastri, mother of a student with special needs said to me in an interview, “My child has mild autism and also faces social anxiety. She is studying with children who are unlike her and they get along just fine.” Rajiwadekar explained, “In class, where there is a child with special needs, the students of the class are sensitised about the related issues and how to deal with them by school counselors with the permission of the parents of the said child. Such precautionary steps have been successful as students become more comfortable communicating with the children with special needs.”
A recent study carried out by the Word Bank and UNICEF on education in India highlighted the disparity between the private and public schools, with the latter lagging behind. The ratio of public schools to private schools is 7:5. This ratio made me think about the mental and physical wellbeing of students studying in public schools. In my interaction with a teacher from a public school, who wished to remain anonymous, I was told, “There are no counselors in public schools and teachers act as primary counselors. In most cases, we are the first ones to identify children with issues, and we recommend them to further counseling services.” While discussing the same issue with Rajiwadekar, she elaborated, “Usually companies or NGOs take up the responsibility to provide counseling support to schools with no counselors and also, basic training is provided to the teachers.” Manjula Patil, a final year student of B.Ed, said, “Our course covers basics of school counseling that helps us screen children and report them for further help if required.”
In general, public mental health awareness programs are gaining momentum. Rashi Mittal, a student of psychology from Mumbai University said, “We organised street plays and awareness programs on September 10, 2015, commemorated as the World Suicide Prevention Day, to spread the message about the negatives of suicide and also encouraged identification and speaking up about such issues. We saw the participation of many college and school students along with individuals who understood the message that we wanted to impart.”
A recent study revealed that in India, every one in three students gets bullied in school. Another study conducted by the Department of Community Medicine at the University Of Haryana concluded that four in every seven students report peer pressure during teenage years. In such a scenario, where a classroom comprises students from all walks of life, there is a greater need for sensitivity towards issues of mental health and human dignity. The school counseling program lays a strong foundation for children to understand and express themselves and they also grow up to be sensitive adults.
As Rajiwadekar pointed out, “These programs have a long way to go in creating a revolutionary influence in mental health awareness and prevention, but surely in 10 years with advanced knowledge and large scale awareness programs, there will be a positive change in the attitude of people towards the mental health stigma.”
In India where the government spends only 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health (WHO, 2011) such school interventions can go a long way in creating a dialogue on mental health in our society. However, the benefits of counseling programs should be equally spread to the rural regions where services for dealing with mental illnesses are not easily available and often stigmatised. The next steps should also include creating a model to reintegrate the patients into communities, work spaces and in policy making.