This is a transcript of an interview with a teacher regarding teen mental health.
What do you think is the role of a teacher?
I think a teacher's role is to inspire children and to make them feel responsible for their work, while simultaneously getting them interested in the subject is the most important.
How do you make your class an open environment where teenagers can speak out if they are struggling with their mental health?
So because I am a drama teacher it's a little easier for me to do so. I make them perform very frequently and usually when they are disturbed or there's something going on in their head they will not be able to do their best on the stage which is an indication of a deeper issue. A lot of students have stage fright and many other complexes. On a regular basis, I talk to them one-on-one and sometimes I put them in smaller groups where they open up. So I believe it's a process. I mean, it generally takes me about 3 to 4 months to get to know the entire class. Putting them in small groups, talking to them personally, and sometimes changing the assignments according to their needs are ways by which I try to make my class an open environment.
From your experience, are there any signs that you notice when students are struggling with their mental health?
Even when they know there is a counsellor, it's taboo to go to them. Students are scared because it seems as if they have a problem and they are not very comfortable going to the counsellor. So a lot of times their only outlet is to quietly cry about it and they don't know if they can trust somebody with something so personal.
Being silent in class is a very common sign. There are times when initially when they start off they are very enthusiastic and very happy and suddenly things go downhill and when you actually look at it, there'll be some trigger.
Coming back to signs, it is the disinterest in what they are doing that is the easier indicator. They tend to lose interest, they aren't performing as well as they used to. It also affects their food habits immediately.
From your experience, do you think many teenagers deal with mental health issues and therefore, we should pay more attention to that?
I believe that every person, be it a student or an adult will have their set of struggles. Just that there are some children who are able to cope with it- They have a very strong support system at home. For some, the problem is the home itself, where they don't know who else to reach out to. The lucky few are able to cope, the rest of them are usually carrying this emotional baggage from a young age and it kind of becomes a part of them and sooner or later they start living with it. Attention should be brought to the problem and the help should ideally enables them to deal with these problems effectively.
Is there are stigma surrounding mental health in schools?
Going to a counsellor is considered a big deal when it shouldn't be.
So the stigma is prevalent among students, but is it present among the teaching staff as well?
Not really. But again, it depends on the training and skills the teacher has in dealing with students who are struggling with such issues and how well they understand the student's needs. I don't want to blame them, but you can only teach what you know. If they've (teachers) come from a background where this isn't considered important then that's how it's going to continue.
A teacher is not a counsellor, but how can a teacher help students who are dealing with mental health issues?
According to me, any good teacher is a good counsellor. They don't require a qualification to deal with minor everyday problems a child is facing. Sure, it's different when the problem in question is serious. But a lot of things can be addressed at the teacher-student level, provided they are willing to take that timeout, which is missing in this system of education.
A lot of teachers don't take that time out to check in with their students or they don't know how to do it. Whereas you, you've been able to create that safe space for them and build that trust which has led them to believe in you. Could you comment on how you were able to do that? It could possibly benefit our readers and better equip them to deal with such issues in the future in case they arise.
I think one thing that has worked for me is just approaching them casually and 9/10 times it's worked. The minute you know there's something wrong or you notice something off, it is very important we make that attempt to go talk to them as to what has happened. They may not open up immediately but at least they know that someone is looking out for them and they can talk to you.
Do you think there would be a big difference if more teachers start being like you? By that I mean, being more open regarding mental health and paying attention to their students?
Yes, it would make a huge difference.
Following up on that, do you think a teacher plays an important role in a student's life?
Yes, they do. I mean, people say that students needn't do what you say but they do what you do. They learn from watching you, mimicking your actions and responses. For example, a teacher who is sitting and eating a tub of ice cream while simultaneously talking about the harms of sugar addiction is counterproductive. Therefore, we as teachers have to be very careful about practicing what we preach.
Taking that ice cream analogy a step further, if the teacher wants the student to give up sugar, the teacher should have tried it so that they know how much effort it actually takes. Relating this to mental health, the teacher should research things beforehand. Let's say they want to address a learning disability, such as dyslexia. They must first be aware that the student is displaying difficulty with such a task and then once they are able to identify that, it is important for them to do a little homework before talking to the student. That way a teacher plays a very important role.
Have there been cases where the teacher has negatively impacted a student's mental health?
I think that happens on a daily basis. One thing a student must understand is that at the end of the day, teachers are also human beings. And there is only so much patience a person can have.
Unfortunately, there is this whole system -if you get better grades and it's easier for me to deal with you, you listen to me and it's easier for me to deal with you kind of an attitude. So in that regard, there have been many cases where the teacher has negatively impacted a student's mental health.
Do you think it's not really the teacher's fault and it's largely the system of how schools work that prevents teachers from approaching a student?
To an extent, yes. I think schools are preoccupied with Boards Exams and finishing a certain amount of portions in a given amount of time. If we see in the last 10 to 15 years, the number of subjects a student studies has gone up, the content has also increased. It is a very delicate balance, to make or break.
So even if there is a counsellor, a teacher should ideally lookout for a student. In your perspective, do you think doing so falls under your job description as a teacher or is it something extra that a teacher wants to/should do?
It is part of the teacher's job. I mean, the least they can do is let the counsellor know or let the student know that the counsellor is available.
As we come to the end of this meeting, is there anything you'd like to say, from your experience to fellow teachers reading this?
I mean, a lot of times subconsciously we are influencing them on a daily basis so please be aware of what you are doing and be very mindful.
Transcript written by: Anjali Anandavally Varghese