Mental health in education: Why listening to schools matter?
Education policymakers and practitioners have taken a renewed interest in the mental health and wellbeing of children today. Schools have emerged both globally and in India as settings responsible for mental health support during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. While this attention is both timely and warranted, the emerging field of school-based mental health services raises new questions and opens exciting lines of inquiry.
The concern for children's social and emotional lives has been central to various Indian educational philosophies. However, a complex set of factors have led modern formal schools to neglect children's wellbeing in the context of learning. The situation has gradually changed in the past decade, as seen by the emergence of socio-emotional learning programs, a greater call for counselling support in schools, and the popularity of interventions like 'The Happiness Curriculum' in Delhi. The urgency of the pandemic has precipitated quick and large-scale action in this space. For instance, the Indian Government has launched a nationwide psychosocial support helpline, developed educator manuals on psychosocial wellbeing, and is in the process of training millions of teachers on issues of mental health. Within classrooms, children are receiving instructions on skills to cultivate wellbeing and happiness alongside more traditional academic content. Schools and families are being trained to support children to "name their emotions", "breathe mindfully", and "meditate for stress release". This flurry of activity in Indian schools today has evoked both excitement and concern in various circles. Excitement because the subject of wellbeing has finally moved from the margins to the mainstream of educational priorities. Concern because the current pedagogy of these initiatives, focused primarily on transmitting scientific knowledge around wellbeing to schools, devalues the role of culture and place in people's wellbeing. Through my work, I argue that by bringing scientific knowledge in dialogue with lived experience of people in different educational cultures, we can not only create meaningful, bottom-up change in schools but also enrich the scientific study of wellbeing. This piece outlines why listening to schools is key to mental health research and practice in education.
Schools are complex institutions situated in specific social, cultural, historical, and political intersections. The labels of "wellbeing" and "mental health" may be new, but education systems in India have long experimented with the underlying ideas and concepts. A variety of forces have shaped educational cultures in India - philosophies such as Gandhi's Nai Talim, Ambedkar's liberatory pedagogy, Tagore's notions of self-realisation and various subaltern epistemologies on the one hand, and the ravages of colonialism, neoliberalism, and modernity (to name a few) on the other. These experiences are inscribed in school cultures today as invisible institutional knowledge, and they shape how schools construct notions of selfhood, learning and wellbeing, among other things. Schools cannot be seen as ‘mere sites of implementation’ for mental health initiatives, where 'expert' or 'scientific knowledge' can be neatly translated into practice through training programs. Schools have stories to tell and lessons to teach - from a rich history of experiments that predispose them to accept or resist change. Listening to schools, therefore, is a critical first step.
Engaging schools as empowered partners can facilitate developing contextually situated theories and interventions in the mental health and wellbeing space. Anthropological studies show that people in different cultures construct notions of selfhood, health, normality, and disorder in both universally common and culture-specific ways. Yet, India's current approach to school-based mental health services rests heavily on Euro-American discourses and practices disseminated through one-size-fits-all programs. School systems aligned to the assumptions, pedagogies, and worldviews of such programs - primarily urban, affluent ones - benefit the most. While for a vast majority of schools and communities – in urban slums, rural, tribal and conflict-affected areas - these programs embody ways of self-understanding and self-cultivation that are both new and alienating. When these initiatives are mandated in such schools, they quickly devolve into routines of decontextualised knowledge acquisition (“learn twenty emotion-words”) and empty skill-building (“when angry, repeat a calm word such as “relax”).
In 2018, during my work with tribal communities in the conflict-affected zones of Chhattisgarh, I witnessed over several months how socio-emotional wellbeing programs unfolded in schools in this region. A prized skill within such programs involved developing the emotional literacy of children - especially their ability to sense, identify, and name difficult emotions as soon as they arose within them. This particular classroom had a ‘feelings-word-wall’ with names of more than 20 emotion-words written on bright yellow paper and pasted on the wall. Each morning started with a drill of the teacher pointing out a word on the wall and the children reading out the word in sing-song unison. The teacher referred to the wall at different times of the day for practice. Children were expected to remember and use emotion-words in daily situations.
One day, I sat on the last bench for a read-aloud class. Towards the end of the session, the teacher asked the children, “So, what do you feel about the story?” As the teacher was looking around the classroom for responses, the ten-year-old child next to me tugged at my shirt, looking helpless, and asked me, “What do I feel?”
This anecdote speaks to the sense of alienation and disconnect wrought by initiatives that are not personally or contextually meaningful. A top-down approach to mental health that views schools (and actors therein) as sites in need of training and fixing before they can meaningfully engage with their lives is inherently deficit-informed. It devalues the epistemic agency of children, teachers, and families in making meaning of their experiences and, in some sense, locks them out of their own lives. Also, such an approach limits our ability to learn how specific cultures and contexts – both within and around schools – express and experience human wellbeing. In the process, particular questions remain unexplored: How do schools with different aims, value systems, and social structures construct wellbeing? How do people experience mental health in cultures focused on self-cultivation versus self-transcendence? How do young people immersed in complex ecosystems of classroom/societal cultures, technology-assisted knowledge networks, and virtual realities form their identities and notions of ill/wellbeing? My research explores some of these questions in the intersection of global mental health, education, philosophy, and anthropology.
Engaging schools as intellectual partners can help facilitate a culturally sensitive translation of scientific knowledge into meaningful interventions and foster bottom-up participation in such programs. But at a deeper level, it can elicit a fuller understanding of what it means to be well in different school systems and cultures worldwide.
Surya Pratap Deka  is the founder of Flourishing Minds Foundation, an education non-profit that works in the space of learning and wellbeing with disadvantaged communities in India.