As a staple of the society, schools are one of the institutions in closest proximity to students. It is for this reason that schools must be at the forefront of mental health care and referrals for youth.
Family Run Executive Director Leadership Association (FREDLA) of the United States encourages schools to work closely with students, parents, local mental health services, and the community to build a multilateral system that ensures the smooth running of caregiving and referral across different departments. Schools can be the first to respond to students with symptoms of acute distress, or to stage interventions for those in a family crisis or violent situations by, for example, connecting those in need of psychological support with local mental health services. Internal mental health professionals and educators can also conduct a primary assessment of student well-being and provide consultations for non-urgent cases. On an organizational level, mental health awareness should be incorporated into existing school policies. For example, schools introduce mental health into the curriculum or increase educators’ mental health literacy with specialized training.
As of now, Thailand already has a poverty tracker to assess and visualize the situation of student well-being on a national level. If data on youth mental health can be systematically collected, economic hardship will not be the only problem we can alleviate. Schools can take an initiative in assessing the emotional needs of students and identify resources currently available and required in the future.
At the same time, the responsibility of mental health care should never fall on schools alone. Support on local and national levels is indispensable to youth well-being. Policymakers can advocate for budgets dedicated to mental health care and specialized training for educators and school-employed staff. Furthermore, legislation that necessitates the mental health curriculum will lay the first stepping stone towards changes that will take place at school, as well.
As for educators, helping students understand their state of mind as much as lessons is also crucial. Educators can have one-on-one discussions with students or assist them in self-reflection exercises that contain a set of questions related to mental health: What does your daily schedule look like? How has the current situation in society impacted you? Who can serve as your safe space? Where does our sense of uncertainty and powerlessness come from? What do you need, and what kind of assistance is required in order to achieve what you need? What is the best way for you to find peace, no matter how brief, amidst the chaos?
Of course, helping students navigate their headspace is not an easy task, educators must be equipped with psychological skill sets such as deep listening. Children and adolescents also require different approaches to mindfulness. Furthermore, educators are but humans who are trying their best to survive a pandemic-stricken society. They, too, need support to carry on their overwhelming responsibilities. Schools can start by providing mental health literacy training or altering educator workload according to their recommendation.
More mental health services outside the school-hospital axis
Schools are undoubtedly not the only place for youth, and not every youth can afford to attend school. This is why mental health services within the community are indispensable.
Back in March, Singapore turned 4 social service agencies–Club HEAL, Singapore Association for Mental Health, Singapore Children’s Society and TOUCH Community Services–into mental health centers for youth without access to the emergency room or those who were newly released from the hospital and needed aftercare.
The government maintained that this policy would increase access to psycho-social support or medical intervention without extra reliance on medical centers outside the community, as such mental health services would be offered by local and easily accessible organizations that already worked in close contact with youth. This policy fell under the management of the Institute of Mental Health, with staff from the same organization providing training and holding case conferences.
The mind cannot be still if the cause of its disturbance is not fully addressed.
Mental health is more than just one’s own emotions. It is a reflection of one’s surroundings. To focus on mental health without connecting it to other social issues such as socio-economic inequality is to merely consume a painkiller to distract one’s self from the root cause of pain.
In Australia, a mental health plan called “Better Access” was implemented 16 years ago, leading to an exponential increase in mental health services. However, a study from 2018 revealed that neither the prevalence of mental illness among the population nor suicide rate had subsided, as the quality and availability of services, especially for those with severe cases, were insufficient. The Better Access plan also failed to consider other risk factors such as the economic crisis and the double burdens of caregiving and providing for the family.
As for Thailand, despite a nearly 50% increase in education spending in the span of 10 years (816,267 million baht in 2018) and the 15 Year Free Education Scheme, school budgets are unevenly distributed across the country, with small schools in the remote areas receiving less per capita support than large schools. Certain provinces are also trapped in the same situation. By making the distribution of school budgets equal again, youth will be free of financial distress.
Also, online learning has greatly increased anxiety for students. Other countries have taken a proactive stance in online learning support, such as the provision of computers and internet access without extra cost, suspension of internet fees in case users navigate websites under the Ministry of Education, free community wifi services, expansion of internet access and enhancement of broadband speed in the underserved areas, or reduced internet-related costs. Such material support certainly helps more students stay in school as well as relieve their stress.
Schools are more than just a learning space. It must handle youthful vulnerabilities with gentle hands. The education policy on both national and local levels must be flexible. It must treat students as the heart of education, honoring them with equal distribution of school budgets or the redefinition of school that goes beyond its pedagogical aspect.