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How Counseling On Mental Health Is Helping Indian Students Cope Better

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By Ritika Potnis:

High_School_Students_-_Science_City_-_Kolkata_2012-07-31_0705Recently, 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.”Kindergarten_or_Special_Education_teacher_-_US_Census_Bureau

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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