The increasing instances of student suicides in Chennai have brought the need to discuss mental health of students, especially teenagers, to the fore. Given that the environment at home and at school has a major role to play in the mental health of students, a closer examination of what transpires in these spaces is essential.
Saranya A, the founder of Arukah Counselling Service, speaks to Citizen Matters on the factors that affect the mental health of students and what can be done to create safe spaces for them.
Saranya holds a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology and certifications in Art Therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness-based Reduction Therapy. She is a visiting counsellor at MCC Matriculation School in Chetpet and Bethany Higher Secondary School in Mogappair.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Read more: Helplines to dial when you are depressed
Factors that affect mental well-being of students
What do you think are the major factors that increase stress among students in Chennai?
One is academic pressure, where the expectations of the parents on the students are high.
The next major contributing factor is technology and social media. The students keep comparing themselves with others on social media. Comparison has become a predominant factor contributing to stress among students, especially teenagers.
In some cases, the environment at home like the relationship between their parents and their financial situation contributes to stress in children.
The students also face peer pressure which leads to stress. The students have a lot of expectations of themselves. They have major career aspirations and unrealistic goals that cause them stress.
As you mentioned, academic pressure is one of the major contributing factors that affect the mental health of students. How do you suggest teenagers cope with the expectations placed on them?
They can start by setting realistic goals. Time management is a skill that they will have to learn through practice. An important aspect of reducing stress during exams is to have healthy learning habits. Some students do not study for the whole week and end up having to cover a lot of study materials the day before the exam. This causes them a lot of stress. Instead, they can form a habit of studying daily and seeking help as and when needed.
The students seem to focus more on grades than learning due to the pressure they face from their parents. They also compare their grades with others. The parents must be supportive by not placing unrealistic or excessive expectations on their children.
The students also need to have a balance between studies and extracurricular activities. Some parents do not encourage students to take part in extracurricular activities and some parents prioritise the extracurricular activities by sending the children to multiple classes after school hours. There should be a balance here or else both studies and extracurricular activities will lead to stress.
Schools fail to prioritise mental health of students
You have been providing counselling services in different schools in Chennai. Can you share your observations on the importance given to mental health of the students at the schools in Chennai?
In broad terms, we cannot say that all the schools in Chennai have an awareness of the mental health of the students. There are very few schools that have appointed counsellors and where the management considers mental health as a priority.
Even in schools that have counsellors, there is not enough awareness. In some cases, even when the management has sufficient awareness, the parents do not want their children to attend counselling sessions due to the stigma attached to it. In these cases, the counsellors also have to take up the role of creating awareness not only among the students but also among the teachers and the parents.
How do government schools in Chennai fare with regard to the awareness of mental health issues faced by students as opposed to the private schools in Chennai?
From my knowledge, I can say that there is very little awareness about mental health issues faced by the students in government schools compared to that of private schools.
Role of parents and schools in nurturing mental health of students
We have also been seeing news of suicides among teenagers. How do you think this can be prevented?
This is a very broad area that requires the collaborative effort of a lot of people.
One is mental health education which will help increase awareness and reduce stigma, especially in schools. Teaching the teachers as well as the students to recognise the changes in fellow students will help a lot as they are in close association with each other.
Teenagers should have access to mental health services in one way or the other. Schools having a counsellor on call and parents having an open conversation without judgment are thus important. When teenagers open up and try to communicate their issues, the parents should take that seriously rather than being dismissive about it thinking that their child is just seeking attention.
I also feel that the schools schools should have a mental health screening programme for the students, especially the teenagers. This will help in early intervention.
If you are emotionally distressed or feeling suicidal, contact the following helplines/resources
Sneha Suicide Prevention helpline – 044 -2464000 (24 hours)
State suicide prevention helpline – 104 (24 hours)
Call Psychosocial helpline – 022-25521111 ( Mon-Sat, 8 am – 10 pm)
Sneha Foundation Trust
11, Park View Road, R. A. Puram
Chennai – 600028
What can parents do for the well-being of their children?
Parents should provide emotional support where they ensure that the child feels safe. This will happen only when the parents reduce the anxiety created from their end. We come across many cases of parental anxiety that is converted into expectations and pressure on the children. Setting realistic expectations for their children will help in the well-being of the children.
This apart, we also listen to many children saying that they do not spend quality time with their parents. As soon as school ends, they are sent to tuition. By the time they come back, they have dinner and go to bed. Parents should allocate time and have open conversations with their children. They should also teach their children how to bounce back from failures. This will go a long way in resilience building.
What are the signs that parents and schools should watch out for if a student is under some duress?
Sudden changes in the behaviour of the students like withdrawal from friends and families, isolation, sudden outbursts, mood swings, losing interest in the activities that they were previously interested in, difficulty in concentration and decline in academic performance are some of the major signs to look out for.
It is important to note the difference in the behaviour as compared to how they used to behave earlier. Some children might have been having a habit of eating more, but now they might eat less. Similarly, the changes in sleeping patterns are also a major sign. Either they might be sleeping a lot or not at all.
Parents should also watch out for psychosomatic symptoms where the children fall sick often due to mental problems rather than physical problems. This can be seen in many students who refuse to go to school.
Teenagers might also have the habit of self-harming. To hide this, they might wear full-sleeved shirts to hide their hands. This can be completely different from the way they dress.
Sometimes, the students also give verbal clues which the parents and teachers should watch out for.
Ways to create safe spaces for students
Are parents equipped to provide sensitive and timely guidance to their children? How can this be improved?
I wish more parents were aware of mental health issues faced by their children. Sadly, many parents do not find time even to attend the parents-teachers meetings in schools where we can shed light on this. We get to meet them only when there is a crisis. We use such opportunities and educate them on the importance of mental health.
To improve the awareness among the parents, we can utilise opportunities like annual days and sports days when the parents attend these events as their kids take part in them. We can make use of such times and involve them in small activities that will create more awareness around mental health and their role in promoting it.
What are the resources that are made available to students in schools to improve their mental well-being? Are these common across schools?
Some schools have one-on-one counselling but not all the schools have this facility. Group sessions are also conducted in the schools. For instance. if we identify bullying as a common issue in a particular class or age group, we gather that particular class for a group session and provide awareness on how bullying affects the mental health of their fellow students.
When we identify some issues with the students like the decline in academic performance, we make a call to their parents to check on their home environment.
How can safe spaces be created in schools and in homes for students in distress to open up and feel seen and heard?
Safe spaces are created through steps taken by the school around mental wellness.
In some schools, the counsellor’s room will be right opposite the room of the school correspondent. Students will hesitate to approach the counsellor in such cases. Mental health clubs can also be created in schools in addition to many other existing clubs. Schools can also have an anonymous complaint box for the students to write about their issues. The teachers should also have casual conversations with the students to keep tabs on their mental health.
With regard to the environment at home, the parents should actively listen to the children when they speak. If the parents are on their phones or watching television when the kid is speaking, they will not feel heard. This will make the kids withdraw and discourage them from sharing anything with their parents.
Parents often feel the need to set an example of them being strong. Instead, they can normalise vulnerability by having open conversations about their feelings to their children. This emotional sharing does not happen in many houses.
Further, parents should also ensure that they will help the kids find professional help if they need it.