Time to Make Mental Health Support an Integral Part of Education

Time to Make Mental Health Support an Integral Part of Education

Adolescence is perhaps one of the toughest phases of our life where our feelings seem much more intense than they are. Pain. Happiness. Joy. Success. Failure. Everything.

What might be a small hiccup in the giant expanse of life might feel like a devastating failure to a young mind who believed their life depended on it and they could never recover from it.

According to a 2021 UNICEF report on The State of the World’s Children, one in every 7 youngsters in India in the age range of 15 to 24 years have reported some form of poor mental health including feelings of depression, anxiety etc. What’s even worse is that out of these students, only 41% thought they needed professional help to deal with their mental health struggles.

In the last 5 years, 61 suicide cases were registered across IITs, NITs and IIMs. IITs alone contributed to 33 deaths due to suicide since 2018. In Kota, which is India’s test-prep centre, 22 students have died since 2022. The reasons cited for suicides are academic stress, family and personal reasons and mental health issues.

How many of these deaths we could have prevented if these students had access to even basic mental health support? This should be a wake-up call for all of us. There is enough evidence around us to have strong mental health support systems in our schools and higher education institutes. Not just in the IITs, NITs and IIMs, but students studying across more than 45,000 HEIs in India should have access and awareness about mental health.

In this post, we explore a few significant actions which higher education institutes can take to integrate mental health support and programs to create a healthier and more supportive environment for their students.

Setting up counselling cells

One of the most important ways that higher education institutes can support the mental health of their students is by offering counselling services in the campus premises. Counselling can provide students with a safe and confidential space to talk about their concerns, work through problems and develop coping strategies. They can help students manage stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges.

There could be provisions for individual counselling, group counselling and workshops on topics such as stress management, time management and mindfulness. Counselling services can be provided by licensed mental health professionals or by trained graduate students in mental health counselling programs.

Training staff and faculty on mental health

Another way that higher education institutes can support the mental health of their students is by providing training for staff and faculty on mental health issues. Staff and faculty members are often the first people that students turn to when they are struggling with mental health challenges, and it is important that they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to respond appropriately.

Training can include information on identifying warning signs of mental health issues, how to refer students to counselling services and how to create a supportive environment for students with mental health challenges. Colleges and universities can also provide training on self-care for staff and faculty, as they may also be at risk for burnout and other mental health challenges.

Creating a mental health resource centre

A mental health resource centre is the place where students will have access to all information on mental health issues, self-care strategies and other useful resources on and off-campus. The centre can also offer workshops, support groups and peer mentoring programs.

Such centres could be run by mental health professionals or trained student volunteers. The centre can also be a hub for promoting mental health awareness campaigns, such as Mental Health Awareness Month or National Suicide Prevention Month.

Fostering a supportive campus culture

There are multiple ways through which HEIs can foster a supportive campus culture, some of which we have listed below.

Implementing measures to reduce academic pressure

Students of today are burdened by excessive and unnecessary pressure to perform exceptionally well in their academics. Parents and educators often cite practical usefulness of good grades as an excuse to do this. While we should motivate students to perform well in their academic activities, we should also ensure not to make academics the be all and end all in a student’s life. They should be encouraged to take up extra-curricular activities and develop their creative strengths and talents.

The fear of failure should be replaced with higher risk appetite. The world of today demands innovators and creative problem solvers. And such people fail quite often. We need to normalize this as these skills cannot be developed without tasting a fair share of failure. We need to promote collaboration among students and not competitiveness.

De-stigmatizing mental health problems

Even today in our society, getting help for one’s mental health struggles is considered a taboo. It’s looked upon as a sign of weakness and therefore people don’t talk about it fearing the judgement of those around them. Mental health awareness programmes alone won’t help us eliminate the stigma. We need to open our minds and educate our family and friends about treating mental health problems as any other physical illness for which we seek professional help.

Making policy changes

Education leaders that run colleges and universities can build a conducive environment for mental health by bringing about some changes in their policies. For instance, flexible attendance policies for students who need to attend counselling appointments or take time off for mental health reasons can go a long way in assuring students of a supportive campus environment. Open door policy between faculty and students helps eliminate any hesitation students might feel in reaching out. Community policies help build strong peer-to-peer and student-faculty communities that transcend beyond classrooms, which will help reduce isolation and promote togetherness and belonging.

Setting up strong grievance redressal mechanism

In March 2023, a 32-year-old PhD student from a premiere engineering institute in Chennai was found hanging in his room. His peers said he was tormented by his guide. Universities should have systems for taking strict action against the staff or faculty that harass and humiliate students. Students should feel they will be heard if they raise a complaint against the staff and a fair and just action will be taken in the matter. This confidence and assurance can come from a strong and impartial grievance redressal system.

Building easy access to mental health resources

A few sections ago we mentioned about creating a mental health resource centre. The centre will only be useful if students are able to access these resources easily and effortlessly.

Higher education institutes can also provide access to mental health apps and other digital resources that can help students manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. This can include mindfulness apps, mental health journals, and other tools that promote self-care and well-being.

It’s time to get serious!

In addition to the pressure of performing well in academics, the youngsters are burdened with the onus of selecting the right career path for themselves, securing a high-paying job by the end of graduation, planning for higher studies, taking over the financial responsibilities of family and so on. Then, there’s social media pressure which the previous generations didn’t have to deal with. On top of it all, they are still getting to know themselves and evolving as an individual.

These pressures have serious consequences. The data proves that. Confusion, anxiety, stress and in some cases, even depression.

Even though our intention may be to inspire students to do better, the outcome could be entirely different from that. Therefore, as society, our focus should be to support, understand and trust them to do the right thing. And to ensure them that if they do make mistakes, that will be okay, and they will still have our support.

We cannot afford to lose any more precious young lives on our campuses. It’s time for education leaders to take concrete and tangible action toward student mental health support.

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