On 2 November 1853, a school student, Matthew Ward, took a pistol to his school in Kentucky and shot his teacher in protest against what he deemed to be excessive punishment meted out to his brother by the same master the previous day.
Considered as one of the earliest documented school shooting incidents anywhere in the world, the incident was perhaps the first indicator that teenagers in socially interactive situations can take recourse to acts of revenge to rectify a wrong that they might have suffered.
While the US incident and many more since then point to the collateral socio-political issues of gun control, it has become imperative to address the psychological issues that disturb students.
This is a major crisis that confronts world education today. A significant percentage of students do suffer from mental health issues which either provoke violence on others or, more frequently, self-harm.
A study conducted by the National College Health Assessment in the US in 2013 revealed that an overwhelming one-third of the students faced difficulties in the preceding year due to mental depression and more than half of them contemplated committing suicide.
Sourced from over 150 colleges and universities in the US, the study was the first significant pointer to the fact that depression and mental health issues are resulting in critical setbacks to the overall personality development of students in educational institutions.
While we are yet to conduct a study on such a mass scale in our educational institutions, data available with law enforcement agencies, including the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that in 2013, over 45,000 crimes were recorded.
These were said to have been committed by minors in the school-going age and since then, every year has witnessed an average increase at the rate of 13 per cent in such crimes. A significant number of such delinquents have shown psychological issues which remained unaddressed during their years at school.
This number excludes students who kill themselves, revealing that over 10,000 students kill themselves in a year. While the reasons for such an increasing tendency among students to inflict self-harm are varied, the fact remains that India wastes an unacceptably large human and economic resource through student suicides each year.
Clearly, with the country placed at eleventh among all nations with regard to student suicides, all evidence suggests that incidence of self-harm and delinquency among school-going children have been on the increase during the past decade.
Various studies conducted at regional levels have mentioned three major reasons for psychological adversities among students of school-going age. The first is increased peer and social pressure on the learners to make the best of the education they receive.
The second reason is rooted in the classic problem that adolescents face ~ inability to adjust to the emotional upheaval that is caused by the attraction towards the opposite gender and the consequences thereof. The third is a general sense of emotional waste that comes with the realisation that school education in itself will not ensure a decent livelihood.
There is an increasing competition for jobs and vocational opportunities. The three factors are psychologically debilitating. To address the malaise, both material and psychological support are necessary to ensure a healthy mind.
Evidently, psychological issues among learners are largely detected during the early teenage period, i.e. when students still have around five years of schooling left. This places the onus on the early detection of such issues on the school and the teaching community in general.
Significantly, India did not have till 2015 any generalised protocol for identification and primary management for learners with mental ailment. That year, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) came up with comprehensive guidance and counselling guidelines for all stakeholders.
Published under the aegis of the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA), the guidelines offer detailed identification and primary management of all issues related to a wide variety of “causative factors” in terms of disturbed mental health of students.
The guidelines declare that “academic stress, poor performance, cut-throat competition, vast and varied educational and career opportunities and resultant confusion in making a career choice, the ever-growing, changing and complex world of work, the dropout rate, suicides, anger, violence, drug abuse, child abuse, sex abuse, HIV/AIDs, crime, changes in lifestyle, divorced / single parents etc. are some of the concerns which require support of guidance and counselling services to school students.”
Clearly, with most of the precipitating factors brought under the ambit of the school guidance and counselling programmes, the guidelines propose to effect a dramatic change in the manner in which young learners are handled vis-a-vis their mental health.
However, the success of such an ambitious programme at the national level requires an equal effort from the state governments as education is on the Concurrent list of our Constitution.
However, elementary data from State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) and State Institutes of Education (SIE) reveals that of the 36 SCERTs and SIEs in the country, only 4 maintain updated data on the availability of guidance and counselling support services to learners of respective states, and the rest lack any actionable data to work on or even to extend psychological support services to school children within their territorial jurisdiction.
Evidently, over 80 per cent of school children in the country are not in a position to access guidance and counselling services, leaving a large number of them prone to various degrees of mental illness, leading to symptoms of delinquency or self-harm.
Since teachers form the first line of defence against mental health issues among learners, it is imperative that psychological and counselling preliminaries are introduced to the teachers during pre-service and in-service training so that detection and initial management can be done by them at the level of the school.
Statistically, over 90 per cent of mental health issues that school children face can be resolved at the level of the teachers and local support systems, such as parents and peers.
Clearly, the involvement of the teaching community is both imperative and effective in limiting the progress of elementary mental health issues into serious psychological hazards.
However, with the country yet to progress beyond the thought of school teaching as essentially textbook teaching within the walls of the classroom, significant awareness strategies among teachers need to be put in place so that we do not waste human resources to depression, suicides, and other serious mental ailments.
The RSMA Guidelines represent a good beginning. It remains to be seen how the states devise the management and application strategies so that the grand vision of the institutionalisation of psychological support services for school children becomes a reality.
The writer is Assistant Professor in English, Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya (Government sponsored), Nadia, West Bengal