Aditya Birla Education Trust (ABET) hosted India’s First Mental Health Conference with leading educationists

Mumbai: The Aditya Birla Education Trust, today hosted India’s first ever mental health conference called “Be The Change” in Mumbai. The conference saw 300+ participants spread across schools, colleges, CSR organizations, NGOs, parents and individual professionals. It delved into an interactive dialogue on the need for mental health awareness in the Indian education system to equip schools and college heads, teachers, therapists and school mental health service providers with meaningful knowledge to affect change.

Representatives from around 50 Mumbai schools were present at the conference, discussed and deliberated two critical issues impacting mental health at schools – the need for ‘Inclusion of Differences’ and ‘Prioritizing Mental Health in Education’.

Moderated by Faye D’Souza, a respected journalist, the first panel brought to the fore the need to imbibe inclusivity starting at an early age and provide equal opportunities to all students to help them grow. The discussion delved into the impact of labelling children with special needs, and how it only singles them out and upsets them. Education Institutions should avoid differentiating between students and be more inclusive, not from the mind, but from the heart. Schools need to look beyond the structured curriculum and look at different ways to measure success through creativity, subjectivity and expression. Parents and teachers need to be more aware about the plethora of career options available beyond the standard ‘Doctor-Engineer’ like film-making, designing, communications, culinary arts, etc and that children can choose their own paths to achieve success.

The need to be inclusive of children with mental health concerns should also percolate into the admission systems of schools. Children with special needs, need not necessarily go to a special needs school but even look at mainstream schools as options. This not only provides equal opportunities to all children but also fosters an environment of acceptance and is a giant step towards normalizing and destigmatizing mental health concerns. Another trend of ‘shadow teachers’ was also discussed at the panel where parents request for a teacher to always be with a student with mental health concerns. In most cases, shadow teachers are not well trained and having them around one’s child could hamper his/her social behaviour, and the behaviour of other students towards the child.

The second panel discussion discussed the need for schools to sensitize themselves towards making mental health a priority, by taking necessary measures to equip and educate teachers, students and parents. A key concern discussed was how mental health concerns like anxiety and depression are high amongst students, and the education system needs to respond to these faster to prevent them from becoming mental health concerns. With levels of competition becoming much higher, and pressure of good results fuelled by parents, students are constantly stressed out. We need to be more sensitized to their emotions and always remember to focus on EQ (Emotional Quotient) over IQ (Intelligence Quotient). Schools need to imbibe mental health into their everyday functioning – right from mental health screening tests to organizing support groups which will help students feel like they are not alone. The education system needs to be aware about the social media habits of their students and create awareness about alarming online groups that discuss and encourage negative and harmful thoughts. Teachers are in a privileged position and are attuned to knowing children – with this comes a great set of responsibility. Most importantly, we need to bring the psychologist into the classroom and help normalize many topics that if not discussed could lead to major mental health issues for the child when exposed to a grave situation. It is imperative to start young and help children develop coping mechanisms that will make them resilient and help them in the long run.

Mrs Neerja Birla, Founder & Chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust said, “Through Be The Change, our aim was to bring together the education fraternity in the city and build a network to stamp out stigma and encourage dialogue around mental health in the country’s education system. It’s important to start young and sensitize children at a younger age about various aspects of mental health. Through the conference, we hope to empower the principals, teachers and parents to become change makers and champion the cause. I would like to thank all the esteemed speakers for their active participation and support to this critical issue. Today was just the first step, and we should all continue our efforts to changing mindsets one by one.”

Commenting on this event Mrs. Radhika Sinha, Principal, Aditya Birla World Academy said, “We, as educators, are in a space to lead change. In this journey of life and learning at our schools, let us ensure that emotional well-being is given paramount importance; let us focus on how our education can have clear outlines, like a well-defined curriculum on social & emotional development; how one imbibes self-discipline, a sense of responsibility, how one picks up coping mechanisms, how to ‘bounce back’! Only if we give impetus to initiatives around inclusion and mental well-being, will we touch the lives of future generations. If we believe that every child is unique and in diversity there is beauty; if we are sensitive to our differences and respect them; if we appreciate each other & are comfortable reaching out, there is no way, our children will not pick up the positive vibes of a collective strength, a sense of belonging and well-being.”

Commenting on this Dr. Zirak Marker, Senior Psychiatrist & Advisor, Mpower & Medical Director, The Aditya Birla Integrated School said, “The need of the hour is to prioritise and incorporate a robust Mental Health Curriculum into schools and colleges in order to provide accurate information, create more awareness and normalise all discussions encompassing mental health and its conditions – in an age appropriate and professional manner. We need to bring the school counsellor into the classrooms to provide this so as to ensure that all students obtain Resilience, healthier coping mechanisms, empathy and emotional security. We also need a thorough training programme to be provided to all stakeholders in education with regards to ‘Mental Health First Aid’ which help understand, identify and guide children and their families going through a mental health condition or crisis. This will also help schools become more empathic towards students who are different and ensure that their emotional and psychological well-being is given utmost importance.”

The event was attended by prominent speakers like Dr Geoffrey Fisher, Head of School, BD Somani International School; Siddharth Shahani, Co-Founder & Executive Director, ISDI School of Design & Innovation; Mala Mehta, SEN Coordinator, Aditya Birla World Academy & Consultant, Nair Hospital; Kate Currawala, Founder President, Maharashtra Dyslexia Association, Shireen Vandrevala, Parent; Dr. Zirak Marker, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Mrunalini Deshmukh, Lawyer & Author; Chetna Duggal, Professor, Tata Institute of Social Science; Meera Isaacs, Dean, Cathedral & John Connon High School; Priscilla Bade-White, School Psychologist, American School Bombay; Dr. Preeti Verma- Professor & Associate Dean of inter-disciplinary studies SNDT and Usha Pandit, Founder Mindsprings.