x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Schools should monitor students’ mental health

Schools have an important role to play in ensuring the psychological well-being of their students, writes Ayesha Almazroui

Abhimanyu Sadasivan, left, with his brother Ekalavyan. Courtesy the Sadasivan family
Abhimanyu Sadasivan, left, with his brother Ekalavyan. Courtesy the Sadasivan family

The story of Abhimanyu Sadasivan, the 16-year-old boy who hanged himself in his family’s apartment building in Sharjah after writing a suicide note on a school exam paper, has raised concern over the level of psychological care provided in UAE schools and led to calls for serious action.

We don’t know the reasons behind this terrible event, but there are usually complex factors leading to youth suicide.

In this particular case, questions have been asked about the role played by the Indian High School. As The National reported, the teenager had written on an answer sheet: “This is not my chemistry paper, but the last exam I am writing. I am so bored of my life and, when I am dead, I do not want my body to be taken to India.”

Arguably, if school authorities had taken the matter more seriously and notified the boy’s parents about the note, there could have been a chance to prevent the tragedy from happening.

The incident may also be linked to the pressure associated with the stressful Indian secondary education system.

Specialists warn that during exam periods, students usually experience higher levels of negative feelings – including stress, anxiety, depression, fear, hopelessness and rage – than other times of the year, and that they require support systems both at home and school.

There are many factors that can lead to adolescent suicide, including stressful life events, youth psychiatric disorder, a family history of suicide and psychopathology, involvement in bullying (being bullied or being a bully), and substance abuse.

While youth suicide is an international concern, a 2011 survey revealed that a worrying number of teenagers across all nationalities in the UAE have at some point thought about it.

The Global School-based Student Health Survey prepared by the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administered by the Ministry of Health found that almost one in six of the 2,581 pupils surveyed from 52 randomly selected public and private schools across the UAE said they had seriously contemplated taking their own lives.

There is a lack of research in the UAE on the main reasons that lead adolescents to contemplate, attempt or commit suicide. It is particularly important to understand the risk factors and the correct methods to screen for it and prevent it.

Important questions need to be asked: why did these teenagers contemplate suicide? Have they been physically or sexually abused? Do they have family issues causing stress at home? Have they been bullied at school? Do they suffer from severe depression or substance abuse?

Even if adolescents recognise their own problems, many of them are reluctant to talk about it because they don’t know where to go for mental health treatment, they believe that treatment won’t help or that depression symptoms are just part of the typical stresses of school, or they are afraid of what other people will think if they seek mental-health care.

More research is required to equip mental-health practitioners and those designing educational and public health prevention programmes with sufficient information to combat this problem. The issue won’t be addressed without recognising who is at risk of suicide, or knowing how to prevent suicidal behaviour and provide treatment for suicidal youth. This is the responsibility of both the education and health authorities.

Even the schools that offer health programmes focus more on physical health, including awareness campaigns about obesity and chronic disease, than on mental health issues among adolescents.

Schools have an important role to play in ensuring the psychological well-being of their students, particularly because the learning environment presents the ideal circumstances for prevention and intervention.

A whole-of-school approach to mental health promotion and mental illness prevention should be in place to detect any risk factors, monitor pupils’ mental health and help improve student-family communication. Such programmes would not only have lasting positive effects on the school environment, they would improve students’ perceived quality of learning outcomes.

Further educational and practical support can also be provided to help students develop lifelong self-help approaches. The tragic case of Abhimanyu should act as a wake-up call for parents, schools and policymakers.

aalmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui