It is harder than ever for learners to deal with the psychosocial pressures faced in learning institutions, and there’s no single blueprint defining the role of school heads on this immensely significant subject.
As such, many heads belligerently exercise powers bestowed unto them in their territories the best way they knowhow. Shockingly, their ‘HOW’ is appalling!
I learnt this the hard way when I was told off by a headteacher in front of his staff in one of the schools I had been called to attend to a student that had survived a self-harm incident. It hasn’t always been that bad though, and as such, I would like to commend all school heads who have continued to dismiss me with dignity by not picking up my calls; those that put in the effort to decently package well-rehearsed lies; those that promised to call me back and never did, including those that will have a change of heart after reading this article.
It is commonly known that fish rot from the head first before the rot spreads to the rest of the body. Similarly, if heads of schools/ learning institutions are ignorant, and continue to grow intolerant to mental health issues in the institutions they head, their attitudes will be soaked by those they head because, as leaders, they double as change drivers.
Intentionally bringing them on board through direct engagement will turn them into instrumental mental health agents and advocates. But first, they need to honour our invites and be a little more open-minded!
According to former Butabika mental hospital director Fred Kigozi, there is a high burden of child and adolescent mental health disorders putting depression among secondary school adolescents at 21 per cent and anxiety at 26.6 per cent with rates higher in females (29.7 per cent).
There are no youths-responsive mental health services across the country, worse in schools, no support for young people with mental health conditions and psychosocial concerns. These learners, however, spend most of their times in schools than they do at home. Undoubtedly, school heads and staff have great impact on mental health outcomes and quality.
About two weeks ago, I had a session with a young person; here is an excerpt of how it went: ‘Suddenly, she started to shudder! Her little hands clenched in tiny fists, raised close to her ears, as though to block out the loud sounds from a ‘Techno’ phone ringing nearby. Her ‘anxiety ball’ involuntarily trapped in her hold for her hands had numbed. As her head involuntarily quivered, she was evidently in distress and helpless. But still, she managed to strike a cheerful smile as though she had emerged from a dark tunnel once her tics had passed.
She suffered from a condition known as Tic. There are two types; motor and vocal/phonic tics. One could suffer both at the same time, and this will then be ‘Tourette Syndrome.’ In this case, however, she had the motor tics in which one’s hands, legs or any other part of their body may involuntarily move, twitch, tremble. They can be frustrating, interfering with everyday activities.
These may happen randomly and could be triggered by anything; sudden noises, cold water, anxiety, stress, excitement or happiness. They tend to get worse if they are talked about or focused on.
Awaiting to do exams, my young client’s tics had recently increased. From assessment, I learnt that these were being triggered by the anxiety about her exams around the corner. Additionally, she had also overheard a conversation in which her school head carelessly and ignorantly remarked that all she was going through was staged in pretense for fear of exams (stress).
The headteacher further blamed what she was going through to ‘bad parenting’!
The example above is just one of many mental health issues that may be written off as non-issues among young people in schools. According to Unicef, almost 46,000 of 10 to 19-year-olds die from suicide each year.
Suicide is among the top five causes of death for adolescents and young people. Considering that most of these learners’ brain is work in progress and hasn’t fully developed, they rely on a part in their brain called amygdala, that is mainly impulsive, intuitive and low on logic/reason. At this stage, they are more susceptible to completed suicide than at any other stage in their lives.
However, most of this time is spent in schools with school heads and staff. As such, this positions school staff as the main proponents for offering appropriate urgent mental health support dressed in dignity.
It is important that teachers and school staff know the early warning signs of mental health conditions and how to talk with learners about mental health concerns. For many, mental health remains unmentionable. School heads becoming more comfortable talking about mental health issues will tremendously foster acceptance. This comes with educating school staff and the whole school community about mental health conditions.
Further still, knowing the early warning signs, how to start conversations, and how to connect students/peers and families with care both within and outside learning institutions through proper referral and linkage systems is extremely important. We need to build bridges between the learning institutions and mental health practitioners so that learners can access the needed mental health care.
The author is a clinical psychologist, founder and director, MIND Nest Uganda