It’s time teachers prioritise mental health

In Pakistan, there are 65 million young people, among whom there is a high incidence of mental health issues, stemming from the country’s persistent socio-economic and political challenges. Even before COVID-19, emotional and behavioural problems among adolescents were estimated to be between 19-34%. The pandemic has worsened this with children being in and out of school, being exposed to more domestic issues at home and having to adapt to the ‘new norm’.

Research has established a strong correlation between poor mental health in adolescents and adverse life outcomes as adults. A lack of attention to the mental health of adolescents may lead to issues with life-long health and social consequences. Positive mental health in youth is a key to the development of a healthy nation.

Despite this, Pakistan has only one psychiatrist for every four million children or adolescents experiencing mental health issues. One in four children and adolescents are at-risk of developing mental health problems.

Yet there are no evidence-based programmes tackling this issue through prevention and promotion.

Targeting mental health issues at an early age through prevention and early intervention supports more positive outcomes in adulthood when it comes to relationship issues, substance abuse, depression and anxiety and more. By focussing on prevention of mental illness and promotion of good mental health, we are trying to lessen the burden of mental health illnesses in the long run.

Teachers are often the first point of contact for students experiencing mental health issues.

Online teacher training is a cost-effective intervention to which helps improve teachers’ knowledge and skills about early identification and management of mental health problems in the school environment.

Our work aims to integrate mental health into the education system by providing teachers and school staff with the skills needed to provide a more positive learning environment for themselves and for the children.

Through our school mental health project with the Global Institute of Human Development we have trained 168 school teachers from 40 public schools in identifying basic mental health issues in the classroom and making referrals for support.

Our first year shows promising results with clear indication of average reduction of distress amongst the 409 adolescents identified at risk of psychosocial distress in the 40 schools.

Teachers are often overworked and underpaid, and have their own mental health needs. This programme a teaches them about the importance of taking care of their mental health as well as practicing kindness, empathy, and compassionate listening with their students.

Results show that the training changes the entire environment of the school - it is more positive, children have higher attendance rates and better academic performance, there is less bullying or harassment, and their behaviour improves as well.

Building on a child’s confidence and self-esteem from an early age helps them develop better coping strategies and deal with the adversities they may face in an improved way.

Every child deserves to have a happy and healthy future. No child should suffer in silence with mental health issues, which is why our work won’t stop until mental health becomes a priority for all.

By Sanaa Ahmad, Mental Health Manager (Pakistan), British Asian Trust.