How schools can raise awareness and drive change
May marks Mental Health Awareness month and this year’s focus is on Risky Business. Mental Health America (MHA), the organization that started this initiative, explained risky business on their website saying, “These(risky behaviours) include risk factors such as risky sex, prescription drug misuse, internet addiction, excessive spending, marijuana use and troublesome exercise patterns.”
One cannot help but notice the fact that a large number of the aforementioned risky behaviours are more likely to be observed in school and college students. Unsafe sex, prescription drug abuse and internet addiction are increasingly common among adolescents and young adults. In addition, there are a host of other problems like stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders that young students often grapple with.
Addressing mental health and helping raise awareness about it must therefore be carried out with strong impetus in schools and colleges, so that any imminent mental problems in students can be diagnosed early, enabling better solutions through counselling, intervention and support.
Here are some ways mental health awareness can be raised at the school level to give every student a positive environment and prevent or better address mental problems that affect students.
1. Empower school counsellors to better help students
The school guidance counsellor is the first point of contact at a school with regards to addressing mental health problems. When it comes to raising awareness about mental health, counsellors need to assume a more proactive role. It is in fact crucial that schools employ a school psychologist to exclusively address students’ mental health as the counsellor has other responsibilities such as to ensure a student does well academically and secures admission in a good college. With state support and funding, hiring a school psychologist for every school can significantly help.
2. Train and sensitize teachers and staff
Schools must train and sensitize staff, teachers, principals and all other service personnel in school about the significance of mental health awareness. When the teachers and others who come in contact with students are well trained and aware, they become capable of identifying risky behavior and underlying mental problems in a student. If a student is showing symptoms of mental illness like stress, depression and anxiety, a trained teacher would work to alleviate the problem instead of brushing it aside.
3. Set up peer support groups
Students are more likely to approach and communicate with peers than teachers and family members. Enabling peer support groups like mental health awareness clubs or volunteer programs can be helpful in encouraging each other to open up and talk about any problems they are facing. Peers are in a much better position to detect problematic behaviour. They are also more in-the-know when it comes to identifying students who tend to stay in seclusion, hide away from participation and are likely to develop problems in the future.
4. Put up slogans and posters around the campus raising awareness
School premises must exude a positive energy and show that they are open places for talking about mental health problems. Posters and slogans, artwork, performances and other such means reinforce the message that it’s okay to have a mental illness and that the school welcomes a conversation regarding it. This can go a long way in helping students understand their own feelings and realizing that they may be at a risk. For many, such communication may be the reason they even realize that they have a problem and that they should seek help.
Most students at a sensitive age tend to blame themselves for the mental illnesses they suffer. They feel that there is something inherently wrong with them and that they just don’t belong with the other “cooler” kids. A positive atmosphere with open communication channels can help such students open up about their mental condition enabling proper diagnosis and treatment.
5. Collaborate with students’ families and organize home interactions
The two vital pillars of a student’s life are the school and the family. These two entities must work in unison to ensure complete mental wellbeing of a student. The parents or families and the teachers must actively engage in discussion about the student’s health. It has often been observed that students behave very differently at home and in school and hence, it is impossible to get a well-rounded view without the two collaborating. Parents and teachers must work together to provide better care.
6. Actively make mental health a primary concern
Despite massive amounts of work done towards making schools more sensitive, it is unfortunate that a large number of these institutions are still primarily obsessed with academic performance, grades and rankings. Students face tremendous pressure to score well, gain extra credits and get into a good college, where they can then face more pressure and eventually crumble.
Schools need to completely change this mindset and start focusing on a holistic growth and complete physical and mental well being. Time and again studies have shown that good grades, better college degrees and higher paying jobs do not necessarily mean a happy life. Not everyone earning six-figure salaries are necessarily happy and content. This churn must stop and the real-life skills that promote happiness and wellbeing must be promoted at schools and colleges.
Students must be taught that their health matters first. Skills of every student must be identified and chiselled instead of compressing everyone into the same mould. At the end of the day, success should be judged by an individual’s personal contentment and their ability to enrich the society.
Schools are by far, the most important agent in driving mental health awareness among students. Students are highly vulnerable to mental illnesses and addressing this problem effectively at this stage can significantly boost diagnosis and treatment, preventing bigger problems in the future. If our students are healthy, our future is healthy. Effective solutions such as the ones mentioned above can help create a generation of healthy, happy and contented young people who will contribute towards a strong society and a better world—get involved in raising mental health awareness at your school.
Swati Kapoor is a qualified dietitian at Practo. She has a Masters degree in Dietetics and Food Service Management. She is a strong believer in spreading the goodness of ‘nutrition through healthy eating’. As a responsible dietitian Swati examines her patients’ health history carefully before recommending any diet or workout regimen, because everybody has different requirements.