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Here’s to mental health

School mental health experts can help enhance learning and well-being of children, says DrJitendra Nagpal

education Updated: May 12, 2010 10:31 IST
Dr Jitendra Nagpal

Mental health and well-being issues for the general population have become important in the last one decade. In schools too, a large number of emotionally disturbed children with learning and behaviour problems are a concern for educators. With mental health professionals being approached by educators, it is clear that in the foreseeable future more trained personnel will be required to help disturbed youngsters and their parents. In the midst of educational reforms, it becomes mandatory for mental health personnel and educators to collaborate in developing both preventive and therapeutic educational measures.

Children are the most important assets of any country and the most important human resource for overall development. Schools are an external medium that helpchildren acquire new knowledge and skills to grow into productive and capable citizens. A health promoting school creates a “joyful and happy” environment that promotes diversity in learning.

Mental health interventions in schools can include:
. Mental health promotion to build awareness and resilience in children.
. Universal and selective prevention to reduce risk and vulnerability factors and build protective mechanisms.
. Early intervention strategies for those with early signs of dysfunctional development and disability.

School-based mental health programmes can be environment-centred or child-centred. An environment-centered approach aims at improving the educational climate of the school and creates opportunities for the child to utilise the health school programme. The positive mental health atmosphere includes the amount of time spent in school, the structuring of playground activities, the physical structure of the school and classroom decoration. The child-centered approach includes individual mental health consultations and specific problem-focused interventions as well as more general classroom programmes to improve coping skills, social support, and self-esteem.

Setting up psycho-social and mental health services in schools
Step I: Establish a team. Plan for a comprehensive school mental health programme that begins with collaboration of school personnel, family members, community members, mental health professionals and students who work together to create an environment that is productive, positive and supportive.

Step 2:
Assess school and community environment. Basic information regarding regional demographics, health risks, and resources should be available for the team to consider. When possible, an assessment focusing on community strengths and available resources, as well as needs should be done to provide the planning team with the information they require to develop objectives.

Step 3:
Develop a plan. Once the needs of a school mental health programme have been assessed and suitable elements of the model framework have been chosen after discussions with parents, educators, students, community members, and mental health professionals, the next step is to develop a specific plan of action. This includes clearly stated objectives, assignment of responsibilities, a timeline and a coordinating mechanism with an external agency.

Step 4:
Monitoring and evaluation. Obtain baseline data on the mental health of children, the quality of school health services, the environment of the school and the health knowledge, skills and practices of students. All these are essential for evaluating the effectiveness of a planned intervention.

Participation is a continuous process and is essential for the programme to progress well.
In short, the school plays a crucial role in the development of cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional, moral functions and has a profound influence on children, their families and the community. Schools can act as a safety net, protecting children from hazards that affect their learning, development and psycho-social well-being. School mental health professionals can help improve learning, mental well-being, and aid in channelising management of mental disorders. A systematic approach to enhance learning is a positive step in a rapidly changing world.

The author is a senior consultant psychiatrist with Moolchand Medcity and Vimhans, New Delhi. Send him an email at hthorizons@hindustantimes.com, marked ‘Dr Nagpal’