A mental health curriculum is not about adding more syllabus. Skills for life can hardly be taught by way of textbooks and examinations. Instead, we need a more open, interactive approach, spearheaded by the school counselors of every school. At Abu Dhabi School, the mental health exercises often begin during the school-age years. Because children spend so much of their daily life at school, mental health education logically should start in schools.
By the way, mental health, to date, is largely spoken about in hushed voices. Even though one in four people suffer from a mental illness world over, the fear and stigma associated with matters related to mental health stop people from reaching out and seeking help; they simply continue to suffer in silence, and sometimes, even in ignorance.
What many people are not aware of is that psychiatric disorders are medical illnesses, just like any other illness that afflicts the body.
It arises from a combination of biological, psychosocial, and lifestyle-related factors, and just like any other illness, can be cured given the right intervention at the right time. From the very start, we talk about physical health openly; in fact, schools have classes on health, hygiene, nutrition, and sanitation.
Understanding mental health
Mental illness, particularly depression, is predicted to become one of the major health burdens in the future. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Over 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression.
As childhood and adolescent mental health disorders are so common, it’s baffling that we are not equipping our children with an understanding of mental health.
Undiagnosed, inadequately treated, or untreated mental illness can seriously affect their ability to learn and grow. It can lead to negative coping mechanisms and, at worst, may result in suicide.
The concept of a mental health curriculum is similar – to start talking about mental health and well-being in a structured and deliberate manner, from the very start.
Different components of the mental health curriculum in GIIS Abu Dhabi school
A mental health curriculum in GIIS Abu Dhabi school has three components – the first is to create awareness about the importance of emotional well-being, remove the taboo around mental illness and sensitize students to individuals who may be in distress.
The idea is not to go into the specifics of various disorders and their manifestations, but rather to understand that mental health-related problems are real, that they are not due to a person’s character flaw or weakness, and that many people around us may be in suffering.
Taking on from this, the second component of the curriculum is about encouraging help-seeking behavior.
The feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and helplessness people experience, which may lead them to take drastic steps, can be ameliorated if students know where and how they can reach out for help. The idea that seeking help is a strength rather than a weakness must be highlighted. And most importantly, rather than relying on unreliable sources of information such as peers or the internet, students need to have a safe space in the form of teachers and counselors with whom they can share their concerns.
The third component of the curriculum, and perhaps the most important, is the preventive aspect – can we take any steps to ensure that students are better able to adapt and cope with the pressures and challenges they face.
The answer to this lies in life-skills training – educating students on enhancing self and emotional awareness, improving communication skills such as empathy and assertiveness, thinking critically and taking effective decisions, and coping effectively with stress, with a positive attitude and mindset.
We understand that educational institutions today are discussing reducing examination syllabi to reduce the burden of academics that students are experiencing, and given this milieu, the idea of a mental health curriculum might be hard to fathom.
Rather than waiting for students to come to us in distress, we at GIIS Abu Dhabi school go out there into classrooms – to engage in dialogue in a controlled classroom environment. We conduct group interactions to get a student’s perspective understanding of mental health, and most of all, to use teaching moments to talk about the things that impact us, as they occur in our everyday lives.