The Place of Schools in Promoting Youth Mental Wellness

The mention of schools and learning institutions in Kenya, easily sees folks go back and forth on academic excellence and its counterpart, underperformance. It is high time as a society we realize that schools and learning institutions are actually entrusted with much more than just academia.

Currently, there are two curriculums in operation in the Kenyan education system i.e.  the 8-4-4 system that is being phased out and the 2-6-3-3-3 system that is coming into effect. This implies that at least 16 years of young people‘s lives are spent in school and learning institutions. With the onset of the new Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) in 2017, they will now be spending at least 17 years of their lives in schools and learning institutions. It is, therefore, safe to say that schools shape the lives of the school-going youth, inclusive of their mental health.

While carrying out interviews and Focused Group Discussions (FGDs) for an ongoing Channels and Actors study with focus on how young people engage with mental health science, it clearly came out that schools have a substantial role with regard to access of mental health information & support for young people.  For instance, young people rely on libraries for newspapers and books from which they get mental health information.  However, it does not go without saying that the access to the materials in school libraries may be limited by the relationship one has with the librarians as noted in the discussions.

In the same breath, it came to my attention that guidance and counselling programs in schools, though poised to promote mental wellness and mental health literacy, still have deficiencies. They are not taken  seriously by institutions and sometimes squashed in favor of academic programs.

Young people further expressed their reservations on opening up to friends and teachers on their mental health issues and concerns. They did not trust friends to keep what was shared in confidence as a secret while teachers were feared to hold the same information shared against them in case of any mishaps in schools including poor academic performance & indiscipline. Such experiences negate the critical contribution such programs need to present learners. 

Students thus  opt to hold back and keep their struggles including mental health challenges  to themselves thereby aggravating their effects. Hence, what was a mental health concern could easily transform into a mental health disability. Some drivers for mental health challenges  in schools include  bullying, body shaming, poor academic performance, workload and little or no time for extracurricular activities, lack of school fees among many others.

To a large extent, schools contribute to the development of mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and even psychosis among the youth (1). In regards to there being mental health concerns and issues in schools, the question that seeks to be answered is “How many of these get noticed or even receive the requisite attention?”

In the recent past, there have been cases of students taking their own lives. In October 2019, a young Form One girl at Cardinal Otunga Girls High School in Bungoma was found dead in one of the school dormitories after allegedly taking her own life by hanging herself (2). It was reported that this was following an incident where she was paraded by the deputy principal for changing her marks. . This was preceded by another incident in Bomet  County where a student died by suicide after being scolded by her teacher for soiling her school uniform during her menstrual periods (3). The girl was said to have been caught unawares by her menses leading to the soiled uniform. On spotting this, the said teacher embarrassed and humiliated her in front of the entire class.

I cannot help but envisage these two scenarios panning out differently had the deputy principal and the teacher taken different approaches to the two situations, and had there been robust mental health information and support systems in the schools.

The disruption of the normal school calendar following  COVID-19 outbreak  have  compounded the rigors of the education system in Kenya. Learners  have spent much of their time in and around school with minimal breaks. Yes, the Ministry of Education is racing towards recouping the lost time but this is surely taking its toll on the mental health of the students.

For all we know, the current prevalent cases of school unrest and school fires could very much be linked to this disruption and the mental health of these young people. These could be young people’s way of asking for a break, screaming for attention, and making their case (4). If they cannot get the attention of teachers or the Ministry, the belief is that these arson cases will surely warrant them not only that but the attention of the whole nation e.g., through the media. These arson incidents could be linked to young people being mentally drained by the increased demands of the more condensed school calendar. As it is said, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’’.

To help curb the situation and place schools in a better place of influencing and contributing to wellness in the mental health space, a number of measures can be put in place i.e.

  1.  The Ministry of Education in conjunction with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development should introduce mental health as a learning area in the curriculum and hire experts to teach them. This was argued for even in the Mental Health Taskforce report that was commissioned by the President (5). Some of these can be young professionals helping to bridge the age-gap thus making the services students’ friendly while at the same time creating employment to unemployed professionals in the country.
  2. Establishment of peer counselling & mentoring programs in schools to offer psychosocial support to their colleagues within the schools. This will democratize access to mental health information, support and referral for specialized care when needed thus promoting mental wellbeing.
  3. Strengthening of guidance and counselling programs in schools with education psychologists to ensure mental wellness is a critical component of training & education with students’ welfare prioritized.
  4. Teachers through continuous professional development (CPD) programs should be equipped to interface with and support learners through their challenges as well as enable them to cope better with their academic programs.
  5. The roll-out of CBC to be strategically phased with a clear framework for nurturing talents, skills and extracurricular capabilities of students with clear transition pathways to provide learners with suitable alternatives. 
  6. School libraries to be well-stocked with reading materials on mental health science in an easy to comprehend format based on age. This will eradicate jostling and canvassing for such resources while fostering mental health awareness.

The government through the Ministry of Education should put in place mechanisms to ensure that schools observe the gazetted school hours for learners so as not to overload the young people, expose them to safety risks or interfere with their growth and development.

The mental health space is wide and schools should occupy a critical piece of it in the formative phase of life for young people. . If spending a day in a place could change your perspective of the place and the world at large, imagine what spending 16 to 17 years going through a system that incorporates mental health could do to a young person’s mental wellbeing. School programs should be stratified by boosting and challenging them to do more so as to have a positive impact on the mental health of the youth and thereof mental health space at large. A society with mentally stable youth is a society whose productive future is assured.

References:

  1. College Students: Mental Health Problems and Treatment Considerations: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4527955/#idm140472037917488title
  2. Cardinal Otunga shut after girl kills self: https://www.pd.co.ke/news/national/cardinal-otunga-girls-secondary-school-shut-after-girl-kills-self-10974/?amp=1
  3. Kenyan schoolgirl takes her own life after ‘period shaming’: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49661658
  4. Acts of violence or a cry for help? What fuels Kenya’s school fires: https://theconversation.com/acts-of-violence-or-a-cry-for-help-what-fuels-kenyas-school-fires-172410
  5. Mental Health Task Force Report – Mental Health and Wellbeing Towards Happiness & National Prosperity: https://mental.health.go.ke/download/mental-health-and-wellbeing-towards-happiness-national-prosperity-a-report-by-the-taskforce-on-mental-health-in-kenya/

Article written by John Manyasa, Mental Health Advocate and Research Aide, African Population and Health Research Center

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