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Is Mental Health Not Important Enough For NEP 2020?

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

Attempted death by suicides by students in Indian academia is still hushed, and no amount of rage seems to budge nonchalant educators and administrators. So why are students not speaking up when they feel distressed about their lives? No! The question stands as who is listening to the students?

Gaslighting students into thinking depression, anxiety, trauma, and suicide ideation is their ‘fault’ will not take education very far. Does this come up in NEP 2020? Sadly, no.

Why are we not trying to understand the systemic pressure and discrimination against minorities in education better? Why are they only conveniently placed with statistics in policy drafts?

Status Of Mental Health In NEP

Children are unable to learn optimally when they are undernourished or unwell. Hence, the nutrition and health (including mental health) of children will be addressed, through healthy meals and the introduction of well-trained social workers, counsellors, and community involvement into the schooling system.” Sourced from the NEP 2020 draft, note how they include mental health in brackets; who are they doing a favour? Are they expecting applause?

The NEP boasts about upcoming changes in pedagogy that improve cognitive development. Is that a fancier way of saying, “We intend to put a ton of activities in students’ schedule that will contribute to ‘cognitive’ development, and we will not have any measurable indicator of results, so we don’t have to be accountable for it, but in reality, we ignore the mental and physical health of the students” There is limited research on the correlation between such activities and enhanced cognition in children? What may be a correlation need not be causation.

Chronic Diseases And Their Effect On Mental Health

Talking to Rita, diagnosed with epilepsy in 2018, I realized that the lack of support to students beyond academics is rare. She is a high school student based in rural Jharkhand, and her life witnessed a drastic change post-diagnosis. Her neurological condition stems from parasite infection, and its chronic nature requires many lifestyle changes.

Besides seizures, she now suffers from depression and is often anxious about her future. Living in rural Jharkhand, she has come across others suffering epilepsy since, but none of her age group. There are myths among village people believing that epilepsy is communicable, but it is not.

Once she discontinued medication, her worries increased. She is scared of walking alone to go anywhere lest she loses control and has a seizure. She felt lucky to have classmates who supported her and would always walk with her to school and on the way back home.

In the current scenario of distance learning, she hasn’t seen her friends for a long time, and it has led to a gap in their communication and understanding. Her family doesn’t seem to care if she can go for a checkup or afford medicines. The mental toll on Rita stands inexplicable to others. She doesn’t feel understood by her family and finds it difficult to cope with her stress.

Why Focus On The Mental Health Of The Marginalized?

According to WHO, women and young girls are at a higher risk of mental health issues backed by several factors. The general stigma of talking about depression, anxiety, chronic pain is a reason why women don’t open up about their issues or seek medical help.

Adding to this is the lack of autonomy among women in households which holds them back from taking care of their health as efficiently as possible, given complete autonomy of choices. Survivors of sexual and domestic violence continue to repress trauma for the sake of honour-keeping and sometimes to avoid the added stress of victim-blaming. This is a bias in public health noticed towards women from an early age.

Basic training in health, including preventive health, mental health, good nutrition, personal and public hygiene, disaster response and first-aid will also be included in the curriculum, as well as scientific explanations of the detrimental and damaging effects of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

Unfortunately, NEP talks about including mental health awareness only briefly. There seems to be no guided framework for change in curriculum or pedagogy. It doesn’t have designated action plans or authorities that will be in charge of student well-being. Does NEP recognize the long-term effects of chronic diseases on students? It doesn’t acknowledge minorities facing a higher risk of mental health issues.

The Isolated Corner For People Like Rita

Rita keeps striking off of her list of things she wants to pursue, thinking she would never be able to give her condition. Besides a turbulent domestic household in general, she hates that she has to carry the burden of chronic disease as well.

She fares well in school, as much as she can, and is proud of herself. She openly communicates with every single teacher about her condition. She is grateful for the safe space she finds and the extensions in deadlines for assignments. But students like Rita deserve more than just a limited space to feel safe.

Could The NEP Be More Inclusive?

NEP 2020 would be better if it had accommodations for students suffering chronic conditions. NEP talks about uplifting students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Epilepsy, for one, is a common disease grappling such a population, as are many other health conditions.

Asking for expert advice from public health officials and the destigmatization of mental health issues won’t happen overnight. What can happen is a progressive shift in the education system by taking calculated steps at a time.

Roping in psychologists in school, accommodating queer people in classrooms, teachers educating themselves about their students’ health conditions, teacher and student sensitization towards survivors of abuse and trauma, the practice of consented conversation between teacher and student, accommodating students with disabilities, cleaner toilets and sanitary resources for girls — are some areas policy recommendations that can be added to NEP.

They should think about inclusivity in classrooms and not just based on socio-economic backgrounds. Attention to the girl child can require more than just incentives to show up in school. It also matters what it’s like for her to be regular to school. Hence, thinking of the above-mentioned possibilities is essential.

What Makes It More Difficult For Rita?

On asking Rita why she feels so alone battling her chronic disease at home, she didn’t think it was just her being ignored. Pre-existing family issues make it difficult for the children of her family to locate a safe environment in their house. Then she went on to say, “I am not allowed to speak. The difference between me and my siblings is my quality of education. I am an educated girl, which makes them feel threatened. They want to impose their thoughts on me, and I am scolded when I try to speak. Even if I bare my limits to them, they don’t see it.

NEP didn’t need to treat students like a package of brains and hands that come to class. The holistic development it so frequently mentions should also talk about accommodating students with different health issues, especially minorities.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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