What Should Schools Teach Students About Depression and Mental Health?

Every hour, one student commits suicide in some part of the country. Students’ mental health always hits the news when it’s time for board exam results and college admissions, but this silent mental health epidemic impacts lakhs of students throughout the year.

A 2016 study on depression in Indian university students found that almost 53% of the students interviewed were suffering from either moderate or severe depression. However, less than 10% of them had actively sought help.

Bad grades, academic pressure, dropping out, behavioural changes – there are many symptoms and triggers for deteriorating mental health, and schools can do a lot more to address such issues. Yet, it’s something that most schools are grossly unprepared for.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced concern about the rising rates of depression in school children in an episode of ‘Mann ki Baat’.

And in February 2018, New Delhi’s education minister, Manish Sisodia, decided that the city’s schools should impart ‘happiness lessons’. The programme aims to teach students how to ‘handle life’ through activities, and also hold parent-teacher training for a holistic effect. However, many students are hesitant about the lessons. “I’ve seen how they teach sex-ed in schools, I shudder to think what will happen if they try teaching us mental health,” says Aastha, a class 10 student of Amity International School, Gurgaon.

The idea behind Sisodia’s plan is commendable, but its execution needs work. The entire curriculum is purely activity-based with no formal examinations to test students on the material. Yes, our schools and teachers are already overburdened, but perhaps our priorities need some tweaking. While happiness classes are a welcome step, treating them as an extracurricular activity won’t achieve anything. These classes will become like physical education periods – used to finish homework, zone out or simply ‘free time’ that’s hijacked by maths teachers, because ‘happiness’ is not a ‘core subject’.

“I think that this is just a move for show, and not something that will be implementable. It’s not possible to do this in India. [Teachers] can still, perhaps, teach this to students, but will it ever bring change in society? I don’t think so. Their outlook is noble, but I don’t think this will help at all,” says Aarti Sahai, a mother of two school-going children studying in Bluebells International School, Delhi.

Just promising education for all children is not enough. Schools need to equip students to handle life.

Mental health education should begin with five-year-olds when they start school, continue till they turn 18 and extend to college too. Education specialists, mental health professionals and policymakers need to work together create curriculums that support early intervention, flexible learning options and an environment that encourages conversations.

Most experts agree that people’s mental health can start declining in school itself. However, research also shows that all the students in a school, including those already struggling with mental health issues, benefit when schools adopt a comprehensive approach to discussing such issues.

We use comics, cartoons and fiction to inculcate healthy eating habits in children and most schools emphasise the importance of physical education for physical health. Schools should ensure that mental health discussions are normalised in the same way. We, as a society, need to teach students how to cope, how to reach out for help and most of all, how to realise that they’re not in this alone.

“Focusing on personal skills, negotiation and relationship skills, decision making, sexual behaviour and other aspects, along with mental health, is key to raising a stronger, more functional young india.” say Gayetri Mishra, a psychologist in a leading New Delhi school.

Our education system currently does not prepare students to handle the demands the system itself makes of them. Millions of 20-somethings enter India’s workforce every year, unequipped to handle the challenges that will come their way. Fixing our schooling would be a step in the right direction.

Yashasvini Mathur is a 21-year-old editor and writer who writes about mental health, education and technology on the internet and obsessively opens hyperlinks. She can be found @withloveyashi on Instagram and @Yashi_026 on Twitter