Be a pal and a counsellor

He was a smart boy who could challenge any teacher with his intellectual competence. I was perplexed when he left college midway through a semester. He just said, “It is getting worse and my parents are here to take me home.” It sounded ominous as I knew that he was disturbed and had seen him with cuts on his arms. I never thought it would grow into something serious that would make him leave the programme. It was much later that I came to know that he was going through severe depression, involving self-harm. I felt sorry that I couldn’t hold him back and convince him to continue his studies.

Regular scenario

What does a teacher do when an academically bright student disappears from the class all of a sudden? This generally happens almost every semester but more commonly in the first semester of college.

For students, it could be a classmate or a buddy. Isn’t it worth attempting to convince your friend not to drop out, irrespective of whether you will succeed or not? Peer support and self-help play an important role, apart from psychiatric medication and psychotherapy in managing individuals with mental health issues.

These issues could arise from a range of stressors, like difficulty in acclimatising to a new environment, being away from home, unable to cope with studies. It is also the age of hormonal turmoil and conflicting attitude. As teachers, we observe such students regularly. On one hand, we are aware that we are not trained psychologists to counsel a student. Despite knowing a student’s condition or issue, we tend to step back and do not inquire about the student. This is even truer if the gender of a student and a teacher is the opposite, which could lead to diverse narratives through others’ eyes. However, a teacher would step in in certain cases and try to understand a student, motivate him or her towards pursuing academics and refer them to the institution’s counsellor if necessary. What if a student’s issue is worse than the teacher’s supposition? What if it is a long-existing mental condition which requires a more clinical approach?

Generally, peers intervene if they sense oddity in a member of their group or sense that their friend is going through a problem. They may even try to resolve it but may fail in their efforts as they will not be able to empathise with their friend. Most students go through a series of mental health stressors which could be due to broken families, disheartening situations, peer-pressure, bad company, academic stress etc. Fortunately, most of the students find a way to deal with such things and move on. It is fine if the issues are confined to a single episodic type. It is better to let someone know that you are going through depression, as you might not be able to do it without moral or emotional support from others.

It is very important to reassure a student with depression that there is someone who understands him or her. It would also help prevent substance abuse. In addition, it will be a good idea to work on his or her self-esteem, which plays a pivotal role in boosting a persons’ emotional decisions, thus preventing frustration, agitation and other negative feelings. 

In addition, it is generally observed that ‘troubled’ students have fewer friends. This makes it important to have a good circle of friends with whom one can share deepest fears and apprehensions. In addition, others have to be sensitised to include their ‘troubled’ peers into their groups, especially while preparing for an event or a fest. Of course, group dynamics and politics might aggravate negative feelings, so it becomes crucial to choose the right friends. Friendly group of classmates and peers help bring back someone from the brink of a breakdown.

Sleeplessness, loss of appetite, keeping away from people, body harm are common signs associated with mental health issues. Some even begin drinking alcohol or taking drugs. This may soon cause addiction, which will then require clinical intervention. As a friend, it would be good to talk to them gently and without judgment, to know of the extent of the problem. If a student is frequently missing classes, it is worth checking on them in an unobtrusive manner. We may not be able to solve the problem but by understanding what they are going through, we can help them seek solutions.

Parental support is key to improving a student’s mental health. Unfortunately, many of them do not understand when their children report or attempt to give a clue of what they are going through. Generally parents’ feel it is a “pretty normal phase” and they tend to overlook the stressors. Parents also need to deal with grown-up children more maturely. Several research studies strongly correlate parents’ mental health with that of their children. However, the generation gap between parents and children tends to derail the communication channels, which has to be overcome through emotional connect or a strong sense of family. 

Therefore, teachers, friends and parents play an important role in helping a student cope with mental turbulence, and all those connected with the individual should ideally reach out and help him or her.  

(The writer is with Christ, Bengaluru)

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