Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Vital role of schools in fostering student mental health

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The intersection between mental health and academic performance has come into sharp focus in the recent times. A 2021 UNICEF India report underscored the profound impact of mental health issues on students, manifesting in learning difficulties, attendance problems, and compromised well-being. Findings from another student survey report painted a concerning picture, revealing that over 70% of surveyed students grapple with significant stress and anxiety.
These alarming statistics underscore the urgent need for early intervention programs to address mental health challenges among students. Schools play a pivotal role in providing essential mental and emotional support to students, fostering a supportive learning environment that nurtures their well-being alongside academic growth.
Mental health encompasses not only the absence of mental illness but also the ability to cope with stress, navigate challenges, and cultivate positive relationships. Within the school environment, mental health extends to emotional resilience, self-esteem, and the capacity to manage emotions effectively. By fostering a supportive and inclusive atmosphere, schools empower students to develop the necessary skills and strategies to enhance their mental well-being. This includes promoting self-awareness, teaching coping mechanisms, and providing access to resources and support systems. Ultimately, prioritising mental health in schools cultivates a positive and conducive learning environment where students can thrive academically, emotionally, and socially.

A student’s trajectory towards mental health can be influenced by the core competencies they acquire over the first two decades of life. During this rapid learning and growth phase, children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to environmental factors. Conditions and experiences can be detrimental to mental health. Or they might be moulded to safeguard and advance it.
Schools and other educational settings can be prepared to meet the mental health and psychosocial requirements of children and adolescents. Establishing a supportive learning environment that protects mental health and makes educators and students alike feel appreciated, supported, and involved is important.

Effective integration of mental health in schools can:
l Improve educational outcomes,
l Increase students’ mental health literacy
l Promote students’ social and emotional learning
l Help identify at-risk learners and provide support, including through referral pathways to health and social welfare sectors
l Reduce the likelihood of mental health concerns developing into more severe mental health problems and risk behaviours

Programs/Approaches/Methods schools can use to promote mental health in students
l Encourage a student-friendly approach
l Permit and motivate students to take part in making decisions
l Encourage an environment of empathy, cooperation, tolerance, and trust
l Establish a warm, welcoming space that is focused on the needs of the students (e.g. couches, accent plants, student artwork, quotes, and photos on display).
l Highlight student cooperation and accomplishment
l Construct physical areas that allow students to move around, access resources, and engage fully in scheduled educational activities
l Having discussions and workshops on mental health

n Mentioning mental health promotion as a component of school well-being and recognising integrated health promotion (which includes mental health promotion) as a priority in strategic planning processes, and creating lesson plans and implementing curriculum in a way that connects mental health to other health-related activities.
n  Conduct team meetings and investigate opportunities for cross-curricular approaches to integrated mental health teaching and learning. This could involve talking about the relationship between mental health and physical exercise, describing the relationship between mental illness and drug use. Talking about the relationship between body image and mental health or examining mental health by encouraging courteous and positive interactions. This can involve investigating the detrimental impacts of bullying and cyberbullying on mental health too.
n Provide evidence-based initiatives to foster a positive learning environment in the classroom and help students become more adept at handling conflict and bullying, problem-solving, building positive peer connections, participating in activities that stop substance abuse and suicide, and other related skills.
n Provide early intervention programmes, such as skill groups on coping with loss, anger, anxiety, sadness, and other emotions, for kids who require extra help.
n Provide services and treatment plans that cater to students’ diverse mental health requirements.
n Provide resources and support for families and students.
n Create a culture in the school where instructors and other staff members who assist students are trained to identify the early indicators of mental health problems in their pupils.
n Students can act out, watch, read, or write about mental health challenges in subjects like drama and English.
n Encouraging teamwork, forming new relationships, and physical activity through inclusive group sporting activities promotes positive mental health.
n Organise mental health events for the entire school. Ask kids to make murals or posters that depict positive mental health.
n Have a mental health week with various activities that emphasise aspects of mental health.

Ensure access to mental health services and support as well as early intervention because this could involve offering mental health and psychosocial support services by a committed health practitioner or a trained and supported education sector professional in each school, like a school counsellor, depending on the circumstances; or making sure that each school has a clear procedure to assist students and teachers who are worried about a student’s or teacher’s mental health, including current information about locally accessible in-person or telehealth mental health services offered by the health or social service sectors. Supporting kids and teenagers with mental health issues is equally crucial in this situation so they can maximise their educational opportunities and prevent early school dropout!

In today’s digital age, easy access to mental well-being resources and expert guidance through digital platforms has become increasingly prevalent. Schools should leverage these modern tools and platforms to complement their internal counselling mechanisms, recognizing that the growing needs of students may exceed the capacity of traditional support systems alone. By integrating digital resources into comprehensive mental health programs, schools can provide students with a diverse range of support options tailored to their individual needs, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and responsive approach to promoting student well-being.

Research has indicated that creating all-encompassing school mental health programmes is beneficial for kids’ academic success as well as their access to experiences that foster social skills, leadership, self-awareness, and nurturing relationships with adults in the school and community. Schools that additionally decide to work with community partners have discovered that they can improve each student’s academic achievement. These collaborations have been shown to dramatically lower discipline and truancy rates across the board, raise high school graduation rates, and foster a supportive learning environment where students can succeed both academically and in the community.

(The author, Sakshi Maheshwari, is a Clinical Psychologist, at Niyama Digital Healthcare.)

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