October is Mental Health Awareness Month. Last Tuesday (October 10) was Mental Health Day. The following article focuses on the mental health and well-being of school-age children. It is done by Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor, clinical psychologist/ senior lecturer, UTT and President-Elect of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists.
Social media in a globalised world has brought issues related to mental health and well-being of children and adolescents closer into the spotlight. Issues such as bullying, emotional and behavioural disorders and increased hyperactivity of students in our schools are just a few of the many problems that can destabilise a school environment.
Bullying, which is a serious mental health issue, is not a new phenomenon in our schools; neither are the discussions mentioned above on the issue. In 2009 and 2011–2012, training in bullying and intervention programmes were provided by the Ministry of Education (MoE), and the Ministry of Local Government to schools. Despite these initiatives, physical bullying has increased and cyberbullying is on the rise. Violence has escalated and some of our schools are no longer seen to be safe places.
What is missing here then? Are we not asking the right questions? The customary focus for these misdemeanors is generally on the students and we assume that they are the source of the problem, so we begin to cite a lack of parenting styles, low socio-economic status, neglect, involvement in gangs and so on. We conclude, erroneously, that children who come from certain environments will exhibit certain negative behaviours.
In some instances however, why have these same conditions created children who are resilient, focused and willing to learn? What makes children and adolescents resilient, despite their difficulties?
As a psychologist and educator, I believe that stakeholders in education have failed to consistently address the learning and social needs of children and adolescents who are unable to cope. Their life situations may include all types of abuse; financial problems; trauma; cognitive and developmental delays and parental bereavement, the latter which was cited as a high-risk factor for crime and deviance by the Anti-bullying Association. Parents who die leave children behind to grieve and these children attend schools where teachers are ill-equipped to deal with grief and loss.
Schools are in a unique position, more than any other institution in this society, to help children. However, the developmental stage of the child is crucial here. There is a window of opportunity to help the child who is under 13 years of age. The child in this developmental stage still trusts the adult and may be willing to listen and to see change as necessary. After 13 years of age, it becomes more difficult as adolescents already know what their life options are, and through their home and school relationships, they either feel accepted or rejected.
We cannot ignore the normative crises that occur in adolescence. It is foolhardy to believe that boot camps and the policing of our schools will toughen up those who have already decided what the ‘deal’ in life is for them. Adolescents who bully often lack social skills, self-control, empathy and compassion for others; they feel powerless in their life situations where they may be bullied or abused. So, they seek approval in gangs, showing little remorse when they belittle and humiliate others. Punitive measures merely stifle these dysfunctional behaviours for a while.
Change in our school systems implies a new approach; not necessarily a revamp of the entire system. There are well-thought out structures in place which have been mismanaged and corrupted by those whose concerns are their own, and whose interests are not in the best interests of our children.
What is needed perhaps, is a new way of looking at the issues which affect the mental health and wellbeing of students, to work with people who have a vision of what schooling can be and who are prepared to turn the situation around. There is the need to advocate for teachers who struggle against the biases that continue to discriminate against children and who struggle with principals who turn away children from schools, refusing to follow the guidelines of the MoE.
Even as we have these discussions, we are continuing to preserve the problems which will continue to exist, if we try to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and concepts.
Schooling must ensure that all students (not some), are able to make the most of their abilities and competencies, whatever they may be. When interventions are made, parents and teachers need to be part of the decision-making process, involving them in aspects of school governance where their experiences of education are meaningful and can contribute to initiatives in education which can foster genuine achievement, across all levels.
All stakeholders must overcome the mindset barrier to an education system that can be transformative across all levels. At the top of the agenda, is the attendance to the mental health and wellbeing of all of our students. After all, students are our clients, the hub of our schools. Without them, schools cannot exist