In my school, starting from the 8th grade, once a week you would have a ‘health class’, which was basically sex education. We had quite an amusing textbook to go along with it too called Health Line, written and ‘taught’ to us by our Science teacher. It was the usual sex-ed class. Girls awkwardly flipping past the page depicting a detailed diagram of male genitalia and boys giggling through pretty much all of it, especially when the topic of female masturbation would keep being brought up through anonymous questions we were asked to drop in a box for the teacher to answer in front of the entire class. To be fair, I did learn some things. I learnt how to avoid getting pregnant and STD’s, and the names of all the components that came together to comprise my lady part.
My school education comprised of a number of subjects, health and fitness through physical education classes and reproduction through sex-ed but at no point did I learn how to prepare myself for a to-be diagnosis of mental illnesses.
You spend most of your formative years in school. Your experiences have a large role in shaping who you are, the person you will become and how you treat other people around you. I don’t know another, better way to put it, but it is also the age at which your mental health is susceptible, soft and mental illnesses get a-brewing, and diagnosed (hopefully). But how do you identify symptoms and behaviour when you have no knowledge of them yourself? How do you put a term to what you’re experiencing, that it’s not just being sad but clinical depression; that you’re not just ‘over sensitive’ but suffer from crippling anxiety. These are terms that school kids aren’t familiar with.
It’s only once I opted for psychology as an elective in Grade XI and XII that mental health was even focused on. It’s only in this class that you learn the definition and symptoms of a variety of disorders. You learn what psychosis is, the different kinds of therapies, psychoanalysis and different psychologists’ theories of behaviour development. This too is done in a very textbook manner. You’re still disconnected from it is as a lived reality and study it as bullet points you need to remember to do well in your tests and final examinations.
Had we been taught about identifying behaviour that’s detrimental to mental health – in ourselves and others – and symptoms of ailments that affect a number of young people, then maybe my personal struggles would have gone off a bit smoother. This isn’t about self-diagnosis, it’s about knowing what is happening to you. And it’s only when you yourself go through something like this does do you understand just what a big difference simply knowing what is going on can make.
So here’s my pitch: like physical education and sex education, all Indian schools need to have mandated mental health classes. In this class, you would be taught about different illnesses, ranging from ADHD to eating disorders and anxiety. You’re taught how to identify it, how to talk about it and learn how to support those that are suffering. You’re taught that mental illness isn’t voluntary, that self-harm isn’t always a statement or cry for help and having OCD isn’t just “like being super particular about everything”. The conversation regarding mental health is normalised, you’re taught good coping mechanisms and how to seek help, and more importantly, that it’s okay to ask for help. For this, we need professionals, not teachers that are appointed to multiple students at random with no real knowledge or information themselves on how to deal with such situations, as is the case in most schools.
If getting professionals on-board is out of the question then make mental health first aid and responses part of a teacher’s training. You can’t simply tell a student to just ignore the bullies or focus more on their studies instead. When they come to you with a problem, it is not moral advice and eyebrow-raising comments they could easily receive instead from their next-door gossiping aunties, that they need.
The need of the hour is a support system and counsellors that have the ability to create a conducive, trusting environment and the knowledge to appropriately deal with a student who comes to them to talk about sexual or physical abuse. Training to handle this particular age group and their array of predicaments. This is not to say that ALL schools negate mental health awareness completely. Mine too took the psychology students for a mental health programme that was organised by the team of doctors at Fortis hospital (this was also the first time I’d met my future psychiatrist, who looks like he could be Boman Irani’s long-lost brother, so something good did come out of if). AIIMS too has a school mental health programme I was told, which is great, but completely different from the point I was trying to make.
Before we do anything, we need to get some things out in the open and cleared up: 1) Mental Health encompasses far more than stress, anxiety and effects of bullying. 2) Emotional, Behavioural and Developmental Disorders aren’t all the same thing, and 3) exams aren’t the only things that stress students out, neither is heartbreak or just our ‘raging hormones’.
We, as Indians, need to be more accommodating and open to discussion. Our school years are our formative years – how adults react and behave when you open up about a topic like mental health, that you perhaps don’t even know is related to the subject, can determine how we decide to open up and seek help in the future. How we treat our own mental health and the problems of others around us. Many signs and symptoms of various mental ailments show themselves in the youth of this age bracket. There are an unbelievable and incredibly sad number of students committing suicide in our country – reports say that “one student commits suicide every hour.” As someone that has experienced the confusion and trauma of not knowing what they’re experiencing and why it’s happening, enough to be comfortable to seek help, we need mental health classes in schools, and I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
Representational image via NPR.
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