Little counselling can go a long way for high school kids, study finds
High school students in Delhi government schools, who face an array of stress-inducing problems showed significant reductions in stress levels after only brief counselling sessions delivered by non-specialists, which the experts say indicates that inexpensive counselling can improve the lives of high school students in India and could be an effective first-line mental health intervention for young people in India.
The findings of the study are significant for India where, almost all interventions to date are only accessible to children in richer settings and are high-intensity interventions delivered by mental health professionals.
A randomised controlled trial was conducted by Sangath, India’s leading mental health research organisation in collaboration with the Harvard Medical School, University of Sussex and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health at schools in Delhi to test the effectiveness of brief inexpensive counselling by lay counsellors on troubled adolescents.
“This study found that a short counselling program – involving no more than five brief meetings with a school counsellor over three weeks – helped to reduce stressful problems faced by vulnerable teens in Delhi. This has important lessons for how we can deliver cost-effective, non-stigmatising mental health support for some of the most disadvantaged young people in society,” Dr. Daniel Michelson, from the University of Sussex who co-led the study said.
Mental health problems are a leading health concern for young people in India, with suicide as the leading cause of death for 15–24 year-olds.
This research was conducted over an academic year at six large Delhi Government schools in 2018-19. As part of the programme, students and school faculty were introduced to basic mental health concepts via interactive audio-visual presentations. Afterwards students were invited to volunteer to join the programme. The counselling itself was delivered in four or five thirty-minute sessions supported by explanatory comic-style booklets, spread over three weeks.
Students who took part were given two questionnaires known as the Youth Top Problems scale and Perceived Stress Scale respectively. All questionnaires in the study were completed by participating students at the time of their enrolment into the study and then repeated after 6 weeks and 12 weeks to assess change over time.
Compared to the control group, who received only the booklets, the students who took part in counselling, reported significant reductions in their main problems and associated stress levels.
“Demand for the counselling programme was such that we filled our counselling slots ahead of schedule. The high level of interest that we observed among students runs counter to ideas that young people are reluctant to seek help for emotional, behavioural and interpersonal difficulties,” Dr Michelson added.
“These results show how a very low cost psychological intervention can be delivered by counsellors with no prior mental health training to students in the poorest neighbourhoods of New Delhi. We must now work towards improving the effectiveness of the interventions and scaling these up across the school sector,” Prof. Vikram Patel, The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School and Principal Investigator of the study, said.
Sangath has been delivering counselling services completely free-of-cost in low-resource Government-run and Government-aided schools since 2015.