Entrench mental health studies in Kenyan schools
Hardly a day passes before we read reports on children taking their lives, children killing parents, parents killing their children, seemingly progressive professionals taking their lives, couple’s fights that end in fatalities, the list is endless. The reported incidences are a tip of the iceberg. They get to the media when it is too late.
A lot more, children included, are accumulating mental health issues such as loss and grief, depression, anxiety, toxic relationships, post-traumatic stress disorders, co-occurring substance use disorder, bipolar among others. The question is, to what extent does the school curriculum build the mental health capacity of the Kenyan child to deal with these issues?
By the time children are done with primary school, they know what a balanced diet is and nothing about anxiety. The antidote of failure in exams is a reprimand or strokes of the cane from teachers and parents. Schools and colleges send students home for fees with zero coping skills on how deal with loss of school time and how to relate with the wanting situation at home where they find equally stressed parents.
Life outside the school curriculum offers very hard practical situations that lead to stress, anxiety, depression and other behavioural disorders. Children are bullied and stigmatised on social media and when they cannot handle pressure they take their lives or sink into depression. Students fall victims of failed love relationships, get angry and kill their mates. The reality is that students are taught how to calculate of angle of depression in mathematics but nothing about depression, its causes, signs, or where to seek for treatment.
When a student loses a parent or a close family member or a friend, they simply go for the funeral and back to school. Neither teachers nor peers have the know-how on how to take the bereaved through loss and grief. The best they are told is “it shall be well” or “God knows why”. They are on their own devoid of coping skills or knowledge of who to turn to.
I am well aware that all schools have or are expected to have vibrant guidance and counselling departments. I want to delink mental health from these services because they are not synonymous. Mental health is broader than guidance and counselling.
My suggestion is that the secondary school curriculum should include mental health syllabus taught by teachers who are trained in the same or equivalent. This essentially means that mental health is offered as a subject in the teacher training colleges the same way Biology, Kiswahili and others are taught.
If basic mental health is taught in secondary school, I envision a citizenry that graduates at Senior Secondary with basic life skills and knowledge on mental health wellbeing. This proactive approach will help to de-stigmatize mental health issues and improve treatment seeking habits in the community.
In the same breath, mental health lessons would help to demystify situations where a family member is schizophrenic or alcoholic. The family would have a better level of understanding of the patient and support them accordingly.
The enhanced awareness will enable people to be alert and take note of early signs and symptoms that may signal mental health challenges in themselves or in those around them. People will be encouraged to seek professional therapy services in the same way they do upon feeling symptoms of malaria and typhoid and seek treatment.
Moving forward, seeking professional therapy will be akin to going for medical treatment.
Teaching Mental Health Education would contribute to eighth national goal of education which states in part “Education should inculcate in the learner the value of physical and psycho-social wellbeing for self and others.”
— The writer is a Mental Health Consultant