Non-Judgemental Spaces, Drop 'Cool Kid' Idea: What Institutes Can do for Students' Mental Health

The conversation around mental health in India has been sporadic and mostly in closed chambers. The death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has added to that hushed conversation, making many open up on their everyday battle. But, mental health isn't limited to Bollywood-- the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus that forced the country to go under lockdown has taken a big toll on the collective mental health of Indians.

For students, the pandemic has posed many challenges. The shutting down of schools and colleges to enter online classrooms has brought forward multiple divides-- urban-rural and the gender divide.

On April 5, the higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) issued guidelines on “Mental Health and Well Being of Students During And After Covid 19 Outbreak.” The NCERT’s Alternative Academic calendar for higher secondary stage has also emphasised on the mental well-being of the student. Some students are still battling with anxiety and have not been able to access mental health assistance.

Meanwhile, education boards are trying to find a solution. The Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) on Monday informed the Bombay High Court that it will not force students to appear for the remaining board examinations for classes X and XII in July.

In a conversation with News18.com, Yashna Vishwanathan, Mumbai based mental health counsellor, gives an idea of how such initiatives can work. She has found through her interactions that often the college or the peer spaces may not be supportive of the students' explorations of the world and new experiences. She emphasizes the need to create non-judgemental spaces where one is not pitted against the other.

What has been your experience with counselling younger population with regards to mental health issues?

I love my interaction with this particular group of people, the prudent understanding they often articulate about their preferences of relationships, worldview, life-choices and how the space they’re in can be supportive for them to explore some of these understandings. But often the college or the peer spaces may not be supportive of these explorations. This happens because they can be impacted by broader systems in colleges that can marginalise young people’s experiences – systems of ableism, capitalism, toxic masculinity, heteropatriarchy, class and caste (to name a few). These systems can cause distress in young people in the form of anxiety, depression, low confidence, avoiding social relationships or academic difficulties. I have conversations with young people about ‘little’ ways in which they resist these systems and access support. For many of them, a more intimate space in their lives can be safer spaces for them that help manage difficult emotions. A friend or a teacher who’s supportive, a school counsellor who meets weekly or book clubs, sports teams, queer groups in colleges that can help connect with people who are like-minded. While these spaces are important and should be accessible to young people, it’s also important to build a school culture that enables diversity to co-exist and thrive.

In some cases, teachers are using tools like memes to ensure students identify emotions and are comfortable with them. How important it is to identify the emotions? What kind of methods and tools can be used by counsellors or teachers in this exercise?

Due to the lockdown and ongoing Covid distress, like many of us, young people can experience a lot of overwhelming emotions of uncertainty, confusion, frustration, anxiety and feelings of isolation. And it’s important and helpful to acknowledge, validate some of these feelings before processing it. It’s also important to normalize some of the distress young people may be experiencing in these times so that the feeling doesn’t remain as something to be hushed about or to feel ashamed about.

One of the ways in which teachers and counsellors can identify emotions and distress for children in challenging environments is by assessing the level of distress using a psycho-social first aid kit suited to the context. It’s comparable to a first-aid kit for physical distress and is used to understand mental health distress. This can help identify distress feelings pertaining to a young person’s context and safe spaces that they can have access to. Colleges can facilitate conversations and build practices around emotional resilience apart from one-on-one counselling spaces.

What might be some of the ways in which the school can be a nurturing space for young people’s mental health? What will these practices look like for a young person to feel safe, heard, honoured in the times that are challenging? How can students, teachers, counsellors collectively create practices that nurture a safe space?

This can be done through collective, non-academic activities like books or movie clubs, encouraging leisure spaces, student-led support groups or intimate networks for them to reach out to one another in times of distress. None of these can help get rid of emotions that are difficult but these spaces can help nurture pockets of safety that young people can have access to.

It's important to acknowledge diversity among students, especially since the lockdown may be impacting young people differently and this calls for specific psychosocial intervention to support them.

You’ve spoken about the psychosocial kit in identifying emotions. How does it work?

A psychosocial first aid kit could be a combination of many things intended to provide initial care and support for people in distress. But it usually includes the components of providing care in areas of preventing any further harm, listening and providing a safe space, discussing preventive and coping strategies, accessing social support around the person and making an external referral if the situation calls for it. It can be a kit at handy prepared suited to a particular socio cultural context.

What are the ways in which mental health of students can be pursued for the better? Teachers are working on this, trying to keep in touch with students and making calls. Should there be an additional mechanism?

Schools and colleges can set a culture among young people to create safe places for each other and enable a sense of belonging, even in their further years. The ideas of achieving things, being a cool kid, building a future, pits people against each other and brings in feelings of inadequacy, and failure. It’s then important to think about little-big practices that teachers and students can have with each other that are non-judgemental spaces of engaging and collective, inclusive learning.

The conversations about mental health also need to invite practices to support teachers’ mental health. A lot of factors may interplay in a university system to impact a teachers’ mental health, which in turn impacts teachers’ ability to think about their students’ mental health and to create safer spaces for them. It is then important to hold teachers, counsellors and students accountable in taking care of each other’s mental health and have respectful ways of belonging.

One of the practices that are helpful for the teachers is to revisit the intention of introducing any practices. To ask questions like, what will this classroom/college practice make possible for the young people? Are there existing practices that are likely to marginalize some of the young people’s experiences and make them vulnerable to mental health distress? Are there ways in which students can be collaborators in imagining/creating these practices?