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Exams During Pandemic: It’s Time We Talk About Mental Health In Education Institutes

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“I stopped before I could click the submit button, thinking whether the professor would laugh at my reasons for not writing my exams. With already two months since the lockdown, an exam was not something I was prepared for. Especially when I was all by myself, away from parents with no socialising; a catharsis to the mental illness I had been living with since over a year. The lockdown has proved to be excruciating for everyone in their own ways, but for me, and a million others, it is beyond that.

There were days when I felt enraged, sometimes numb, sometimes at peace, and most times crying when thoughts of anxiety would cripple me and I’d wish for things to become better. I did not want to create an issue to get away from exams like most did. But here I was, with my handset in my hand, and in a dilemma, whether to do or not.

I was helpless. I wanted to pour out my feelings and be understood about what it means to live with a mental illness in such a situation. I wanted my words to be heard, loud and clear. And for someone too feel the pain behind my reasons. Stuck in an existential crisis, anything more would only aggravate my already poor health. Would it be better to be amongst the crowd, and ignore my own pain, or stand out of the crowd and just say it? I wondered.

This is what thousands of students are facing today in different parts of the country. Some speak up only to be silenced, while some decide to live with it and bear it all silently.

Education in India is revered. Parents do so much to raise their kids — set high expectations, sometimes unrealistic,  and at other times, support their children in whatever they wish to pursue. They even take loans to fulfil their children’s dream to study, but is education in India student-friendly? At least not when it comes to acknowledging the possible mindset of countless students during such a time, where lakhs of them are not living with the same mental state.

The WHO has already predicted an upsurge in the number of mental health cases. Yet, we continue to turn a blind eye towards this. We don’t even consider the fact that most mental health issues during the lockdown are arising due to restricted access to socialising, financial implications of the pandemic, or familial issues that are on the rise during such times.

The trend of online lectures, asking for submissions, and conducting exams in a conventional manner only point to one thing — education was never considered a tool for growth and development, but a method of getting stamped certificates and degrees. Only if students face issues such as unavailability of resources like electronic devices or interrupted electricity, our schools and colleges would take cognisance, but will a reason like, “I am not in my mental state to study” be heard and accepted?

Not just students, even teachers are not spared during such times. Most schools are asking teachers to involve students as young as kindergarteners, to keep them “involved” by coming up with innovative strategies, overburdening both teachers and parents to keep up with the classwork without any real learning. Teachers too have their families and children to take care of, and parents are entangled in the web of the crisis. Engagement is essential, but not at the cost of mental health.

Mental Health In The Education Sector

Mental health does not find itself as priority in the education sector. Schools and colleges may have counsellors in place, but are we encouraging our students to speak up? And even if they do, are they being heard and not laughed at? As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness week from today, it is time to keep a check on how our systems are dealing with students and teachers during a global crisis.

Are we devising strategies just for the sake of completing the syllabus? Are we not ensuring whether the child is in a capacity to learn and appear for exams, or if education is about learning first?

These are tumultuous times and the systems have to deal through this with kindness ⁠— the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. In times of a global crisis, schools and colleges are supposed to make it easier, not just through online lectures, but by letting students choose their pace and providing relaxations, and not by ignoring the mental health of students of various age groups. Mental health is more important than physical well-being — the brain is the healing source of all other organs of the body. But despite these facts, the importance of mental health is never understood.

Celebrities and professionals coming out and vouching for mental health is not enough. It has to be understood and acknowledged by all, and this will happen only if the systems of our country structure policies that make mental well-being a priority. Making it easier for those affected would enable them to make the best use of their potential to bring laurels for themselves and the country.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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