Mental Health in Schools

The Wellness Perspective

Author: Ms. Shama Parkhe

Coping mechanisms are thoughts, feelings, and behaviours used to manage internal as well as external stressors, and adapt to changes in life.

Mental Illness versus Wellness

An increasing awareness of mental health issues has given rise to discussions around the need to introduce a class on mental health in schools with the aim of teaching young students about schizophrenia, depression, and other disorders, so that they are better equipped to deal with these challenges in adulthood, and provide the necessary care to those in need of support. While I completely second the intent of equipping students with skills to manage their and others’ psychological difficulties better, I would rather place emphasis on educating young minds with the importance of mental health & wellness, not illness. This perspective is well highlighted in WHO’s definition of health as contained in its constitution: 5
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Given that this ‘state of well-being’ is common to all of us, it is vital to understand mental health as a continuum between wellness and illness that belongs to us all. Here, one can understand illness as a state of dysfunction or reduced functional abilities. We all tend to oscillate between wellness and illness at different times, different intensities, and for varied durations.

The image that comes to mind is that of a sliding scale with wellness and illness on each side.As stressors increase and go beyond our coping abilities, we experience the weight of these stressors pulling us down and moving towards illness. Once we recognise what is pressing on us, become aware of our emotions, seek and accept support in managing our emotions, and take a step towards resolution, we start feeling lighter and moving towards wellness. It is easier said than done, especially for those with severe mental health issues.

6The variance in oscillating between wellness and illness is brought about by the difference in many factors such as personality, genetics, socio-economic systems, coping mechanisms, social support, and so on. Although, one cannot control and manage all the above-mentioned factors, it is possible for us to improve our state of mental well-being by increasing emotional awareness and developing effective coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are thoughts, feelings, and behaviours used to manage internal as well as external stressors, and adapt to changes in life.
Through this article, I want to:

  • propose the creation of safe experiential spaces in schools as one of the possible ways to heighten emotional awareness and develop coping mechanisms from a younger age
  • discuss how one’s emotional awareness and effective coping abilities can help improve the state of well-being

For children and adolescents to make the best possible progress, school curriculum needs to place great value not only in academics, but also in the development of social skills, increasing emotional awareness, raising self-esteem, improving attitudes towards learning, and preparing them for the next stage in life. While schooling forms an integral part of shaping individual personalities, developing a wellness perspective to mental health is crucial during these years. Only last week, I came across a Facebook post where schools were being criticised for placing sole emphasis on academics and being concerned with marks and merit. With the introduction of alternative approaches to education and learning where for instance, classrooms have moved to natural settings, the above may not hold true for all schools. However, we do have a long way to go before the wellness perspective to mental health forms an integral part of the curriculum.

Creation of experiential learning spaces in schools is an affordable and accessible way to create awareness on mental health and develop the wellness perspective.

Experiential Classrooms

Creation of experiential learning spaces in schools is an affordable and accessible way to create awareness on mental health and develop the wellness perspective. What I propose here is one of the many ways schools can choose to create experiential and safe spaces. To begin with, it might be a good idea to start and end each day with a round of feelings check. Teachers could ask students to sit in a large circle instead of rows and check in with one word or phrase to express how they feel at the start and end of the day. The act of sitting in a circle recognises the fact that each one’s feelings are important, including the teachers’. Further, expression of feelings gives the teacher a snapshot of how each student has experienced the day, and whether a student requires support after a difficult day. Moreover, it also gives the students an opportunity to listen to how their teacher feels as s/he leaves for the day. This may or may not be possible for schools with large number of students in each class, in which case, teachers can skip the formation of circle, however continue to encourage students to participate in a round of feelings check.
The next step would be creating weekly experiential spaces for smaller groups (preferably facilitated by professionals trained in conducting experiential groups), with the aim of offering a safe reflective space. The idea is to encourage students to talk about themselves, their week, share stories related to home, school as well as peers, along with an expression of thoughts and feelings associated with those stories. Talking about oneself requires one to be emotionally aware and have the emotional vocabulary. Teachers could therefore integrate this process with the high school curriculum. In the meantime, schools could continue creating experiential spaces for younger primary school children using a range of therapeutic activities, drama therapy, movement therapy, and art therapy, to mention a few, aimed at increasing emotional awareness as well as building safe spaces for encouraging expression, creativity and spontaneity.

Talk to People

One of the motivating factors in writing this article is to emphasise the importance of talking. Today when I work with youngsters or even adults for that matter, I notice how difficult it is for people to talk about themselves. And this becomes even more difficult when they have to share their difficult experiences in an intimate space. It is easier to engage in conversations about the events in external world, as compared to looking inwards and sharing one’s thoughts and feelings. What is the need to talk? Well, it is only by talking that one can feel heard. We all want to be heard and understood, however we want others to hear and understand us without having to say anything. “Why do I need to ask? If they love me or care for me, they should understand!” is one of the common complaints I hear. And it is expectations like these which contribute to misunderstanding in many relationships.7

Instead, if youngsters learn to express their needs, wants, and desires, and are open to the idea that they may or may not get what they want, and that it is alright to not get what you want always, it might decrease some amount of relational issues. Moreover, talking in a group also helps people recognise that they are not alone, and there are others who might be experiencing similar challenges or may have experienced them in the past. This listening can help them relate to others, offer support, share their struggles and stories of success, as a way of helping others grow in their own personal journeys. In this way, those who have come to develop beliefs such as “nobody cares” or “how does it matter to anyone else” not only get an opportunity to challenge those beliefs, but are also able to modify such beliefs through positive experiences of being cared for and listened to in groups. Although, this is not a fool proof way to avoid mental health issues in the future, learning to talk about oneself and express one’s feelings it increases the likelihood of people seeking and accepting help in future if needed. Seeking help and accepting support is one of the coping abilities that can help people manage mental health issues.

Seeking help and accepting support is one of the coping abilities that can help people manage mental health issues.

Why create exclusive spaces for expression of thoughts and feelings in schools?

8Although one understands the literary difference between thoughts and feelings, it is common to find people interchange feelings with thoughts in conversations. Very often, when asked how one is feeling, I find people telling me what they think. Identifying this fundamental difference and introducing feelings in our conversations i.e. a basic shift from ‘I think…’ to ‘I feel…’ would bring about a significant change in the way we relate to self and others. Not only does it help us recognise our emotions and express them, but also helps us take responsibility for the expression, eventually contributing to increased emotional awareness. Initiation of such practices at a younger age could in due course encourage reflective skills, as well as improve one’s relationships with self and others. The skill to reflect gives an opportunity, especially during conflicts, to take a step back and review one’s thoughts and feelings as well as consider the other person’s perspective, before one continues to react in counterproductive ways.

Once students start expressing their emotions, they also get the opportunity to witness how their emotions affect others around. In situations, where one’s emotions evoke a set of difficult emotions or reactions in others, it is necessary that one acknowledges the impact and yet not feel responsible for the other person’s emotions. Moreover, by being in a group, students not only learn to express, but also listen to others’ stories and respond accordingly. It is not necessary for each student to talk every time, as listening to others and developing sensitivity to others’ experiences also helps one grow emotionally. Sharing stories offers each one with a different perspective into each other’s lives, gives a sense of relief that one is not alone in their journey, allows an understanding that there is always someone better off and less privileged than themselves, as well as provides an opportunity to imagine what it might feel like for others by stepping into their shoes and developing the ability to empathise. It does not end here. Increased emotional awareness does translate into improved levels of confidence and a stronger self-esteem, thereby influencing one’s academic performance. Teachers could use feedback from these spaces in recognising students who might need additional support, or further interventions to identify and address challenges with cognitive abilities.

Traditional systems of psychological support in schools involve one to one interactions with counsellors, and this support is usually made available to students with evident difficulties. Although one to one interactions are necessary in specific contexts, introduction of spaces where a professional can attend to a group of students at a time, increases the likelihood of all students getting the necessary support. In addition, the only tool used in these experiential spaces is ‘relationships’ and relationships are free of any material costs. Thus, schools do not have to incur additional expenses or implement sophisticated technology to develop this wellness perspective.

Increased emotional awareness does translate into improved levels of confidence and a stronger self-esteem, thereby influencing one’s academic performance.

Concluding Thoughts..

In addition to increased emotional awareness and improved quality of relationships, development of the wellness perspective will contribute significantly to reduction of the stigma associated with mental health issues. Recognising that we all belong to the same continuum and we could possibly be at the challenging end of the continuum will hopefully encourage an inclusive attitude towards those with mental health issues. I feel this is the need of the hour. And it only makes sense to first invest time and energy in maintaining a healthy state of well-being, rather than having to explore treatment options in the future. Prevention is better than cure, certainly in the context of mental health and wellness.
A step forward would be to create similar spaces for parents, teachers, and other support staff in schools, with the aim of catering to their mental health needs.

About the Author

Ms. Shama Parkhe
Ms. Shama Parkhe is a passionate mental health warrior with a qualification in M.Sc. Psychology (Clinical). She co-founded Hank Nunn Institute, a registered charitable trust, in July 2014, and presently works in the capacity of a Clinical Director. Hank Nunn Institute (HNI) is a not-for-profit organisation working towards developing affordable, accessible, culturally congruent treatment, awareness, and training services in the field of mental health. Ms. Parkhe has a keen interest in developing alternatives to traditional mental health practices by involving the larger community, and shares the dream of setting up therapeutic communities for people with personality difficulties in India. She believes in the efficacy of group processes and aims at creating safe, reflective, and therapeutic spaces for groups of people experiencing relational struggles. While she considers psychotherapy to be a gift that can be given to ourselves as well as others in facilitating our journeys of personal growth and wellness, she sheds some light on these issues in the school spaces in this article for MENTOR magazine.

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