By Wasim Kakroo
SCHOOL days are an indelible part of your life, whether you liked it or hated it. Our school days effectively formed us into the adults we are today, even if we are unaware of it at the time and it's no surprise, given that school is the centre of every school going child's life. It is here that students learn about themselves, their passions, likes and dislikes, as well as their strengths and flaws. The school and its surroundings have a significant impact on how students develop.
Aside from academics, schools are locations where children learn to connect with one another, develop social skills, and create their first relationships outside of the home. The world within a school's walls is vastly different from the one outside.
School is the place where a child/adolescent learns not only the academic skills but also the various other skills such as establishing and maintaining the friendships, taking part in various co/extra-curricular activities, such as playing various sports and taking part in various stage based activities such as anchoring the various programs, debates and seminars. Thus school can become and in fact should become a means of holistic (social, psychological, emotional, physical and academic) development of a child/adolescent.
What is the Importance of school in post COVID-19 era:
The importance of school as a source of child’s holistic development has increased manifold owing to the state of stagnancy imposed in the lives of children by COVID-19 lockdowns and SOPs that the children/adolescents had to follow and are still following while the world is slowly and steadily trying to come back to normalcy owing to decline in the COVID-19 related infections and deaths worldwide. The disturbances that happened in the past three years (including the post article 370 abrogation era, as well as two years since the break out of COVID-19 pandemic back in 2020) have impacted the various areas of a child’s life very significantly. One of the most important areas that got the worst hit by these medico-political disturbances has been the psycho-socio-emotional domains of a child’s life. In general the mental health and psycho-social well being of children and adolescents took a back stage in the aftermath of these impactful events.
COVID-19 has exacerbated youth’s mental health difficulties, which were already on the rise prior to the pandemic, with social isolation and pressure to perform in a remote learning environment that was rampant across all these years. Research says that the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of children and adolescents is "of great concern,", and is leading to an increase in anxiety, depression, sleep and eating disorders, as well as disturbed social relationships. According to the research, this pandemic may continue to have significant long-term harmful implications on children's and adolescent's mental health compared to adults even after the pandemic is gone from the world.
Looking at the unprecedented amount of impact COVID-19 have left on the impressionable young minds of children and adolescents, the school administrators and teachers have an added responsibility to take care of the mental health needs of children and adolescents in addition to catering to their academic needs, especially now when the children are coming back to school slowly and steadily. But this issue is more than what meets the eye. The school administrators and teachers might themselves be experiencing the trauma caused by COVID-19 deaths worldwide. The situation is complicated by the fact that both the administrators as well as teachers may not know what are the various mental health needs of children and adolescents and how exactly such needs can be fulfilled.
Some of the common indicators (such as being cranky and irritable most of the time, picking fights with other children in the classroom or at the playground, lack of focus and concentration etc.) that teachers used to spot students who are having mental health issues may or may not be available in post COVID era. They may be replaced by some more complex pathological behaviors, difficult to understand by a teacher with zero or sub average understanding of various mental health issues, as is the case with most of our teachers in both private as well as govt. schools. Some teachers may be unable to read the covered faces of their students. As a result, teachers may have a difficulty in knowing about how students are doing or the extent to which they are struggling, especially when it comes to psycho-socio-emotional issues.
What is the importance of introducing mental health education in school curriculum?
Now, keeping in view the complexity of the situation created by COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that the educators and policy makers take it as a responsibility upon themselves to consider introducing mental health education in the school curriculum so that it helps school administrators, teachers as well as parents to know about the various aspects of mental health of children and adolescents. Here are some of the benefits of introducing mental health education in school curriculum:
- Mental health education means teaching children various aspects of mental health and ways to have and maintain positive mental health. It is important that children and adolescents understand the concept of self-care and recognize their responsibility for their own mental health. Furthermore, the concept that mental health is an intrinsic element of overall health and well-being can be emphasized through mental health education.
- Mental health education should begin in elementary school to facilitate optimal growth and development. Children develop their first friendships during this time, and teenagers shape their self-worth and self-esteem. Youth face a variety of obstacles as they grow up, including exclusion from groups, bullying, conflict, and low self-esteem. Mental health education can address these issues and provide them with the tools they need to deal with them. Students' mental health can be considerably improved via a collaborative effort involving mental health specialists (including school counselors, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, special educators, remedial educationists etc.) parents, and teachers, establishing the stage for a healthier and happier future.
- Mental health education also aims to increase understanding of the various mental health issues and teach children, parents, and teachers how to spot mental health disorders in themselves and others. When mental health issues go misdiagnosed or untreated, it can lead to unhealthy coping strategies and have a severe impact on a child's capacity to learn and thrive. Through mental health education, children can be taught strategies to manage mental health issues, in addition to a better understanding of the importance of mental health. They may be exposed to strategies and tools for dealing with mental health issues, allowing them to build problem-solving skills.
- Students may be more likely to grasp the concept of self-care and well-being. They may be encouraged to take responsibility for their own health and recognize that their health is in their own control.
- Children may become more experienced in recognizing mental illnesses and the symptoms that accompany them. As a result, they can be more proactive in detecting problems early on. Early intervention can make all the difference in their world. Prior to the onset of any major mental illness, small changes in behaviour and thinking are expected. Teachers, relatives, friends, and even the students themselves can spot these early warning signs if they know what to look for. Mood swings, anxiousness, withdrawal, and a drop in academic performance are just a few of the warning symptoms. The severity of mental illness can be reduced with early intervention. It may also help to postpone or even prevent the onset of a serious mental disorder.
- Mental health awareness can help students live longer and healthier lives. Suicide, substance abuse and self-harm among teenagers are very serious problems and they are increasing day by day. Suicide is the second highest cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24. Enhancing knowledge of the signs and symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses can assist students in recognising these problems and seeking assistance before it is too late. School can literally save lives by including mental health education and information on how and where to get help.
- Stigma can be reduced with the introduction of mental health education. The term "stigma" refers to a mark of shame that sets someone apart. These individuals are stereotyped and defined by their sickness. Blame, humiliation, hopelessness, and pain can all stem from negative views toward stereotyped groups. We begin to mainstream mental illness conversations and the stigma around it dissipates when we educate our youth about mental illnesses. Fear and anxiety associated with mental health issues can be de-stigmatized through mental health education. We can try to mainstream mental illnesses and foster talks about the stigma related to them through education in order to eliminate the fear once and for all.
School-based mental health education can have a big impact on a child's current and future mental health. It can also help to develop resilience by raising mental health awareness. The advantages of this form of education are incalculable.
Schools can help students develop self-confidence and self-esteem, which can lead to better mental health. It is critical that children learn about the importance of mental health, how to recognize indicators of mental illness, and how to get help for any mental health issues.
To summarize, the prevalence of mental illnesses in children and adolescents has been rising with each generation. COVID-19 pandemic has increased their prevalence manifold and hence it has become a new challenge to deal with, in the post COVID era. We, as a society, must do everything we can, to protect our younger generations from the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic and introducing mental health education in the school curriculum is the first step towards securing the future of our younger generations.
- The author is an RCI licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar) and can be reached for help at 8825067196
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