— By Ayushi Khemka
I remember coming back home from school and switching on the small 14 inch TV that we had in our room and getting glued to watch some random American disney shows dubbed in Hindi. Most of them were based on the high school experiences of teenagers and I, being one, used to love watching those pretty white people all dressed up in casual clothing and not a strict uniform, running here and there in their brightly painted school corridors and rummaging through their lockers. I used to be fascinated by not just the aesthetics of the schools that were shown on these shows, but also some of the minor characteristics of such schools, one of them being the presence of a counsellor.
I went to one of those famous private North Delhi Jesuit schools, getting admission into which is an aspiration for many of the parents out there. The school had a huge playing ground, big spacious classrooms, massive auditorium and even a state-of-the-art swimming pool. Now, this is not me flexing about my school but rather, establishing the privileged ways in which the school functioned and provided its students with multiple facilities. As is common in every school, there were instances of bullying, harassment and abuse at my school too. All the facilities, you see, do not really mean much when it comes to providing a safe space to all the students. The facilities never extended to catering to the mental health of the students who came from a diverse socio-cultural background.
Years later, when I graduated from school and went to college, I soon grew a familiarity with the concept of a counsellor as people around me threw in the word in some random conversations or some such. Move ahead a couple or two years more and I watched another show based on high school experiences of a young girl, this time on Netflix, and had one of those whimpering (not a banging) mind numbing moments, if you will. With all of its problems around portraying suicide in an irresponsible way, I did find some parts of 13 Reasons Why speak to the school-me (or high school-me, as the Americans would call it). For those uninitiated, 13 Reasons Why traces the suicide of a young girl Hannah Baker at Liberty High and all the 13 reasons why she chose to end her life, including instances of bullying, harassment and rape, amongst others. While watching the show, I could recall a lot of my own experiences at my fancy Delhi school and yet there was one aspect, rather the lack of it, that disturbed me to no ends, that is the counsellor. In the show, the protagonist Hannah Baker seeks help from the school counsellor who though fails her in providing adequate support. For the adult-me thinking from the perspective of a high school-me, the mere existence of a counsellor and the very idea that if you were being bullied or harassed, you could go and speak to someone about it who is trained in handling such issues was simply alien and striking.
The adult-me kept on pondering over how when I came from a place of immense privilege, when it comes to the kind of school I attended as a kid, even that did not translate into having a basic mental healthcare system available for my perusal. The existing mental health discourse that we have going on on social media or otherwise, tends to be highly exclusionary and focused solely on seeing mental health as an apolitical, urban issue. However, this couldn’t be more wrong. Mental health is a political category. When I recall all the acts of bullying and harassment that I and some others faced at my school, one can gauge how those acts of harassment that affected our mental health were driven by the factors of identity and exclusion. A lot of the girls were slutshamed and abused by their respective boyfriends and sometimes even by teachers. A lot of the boys were bullied for not being manly enough. Students coming from minority backgrounds were called names and profiled due to their religious identity in a way that seemed harmless to most of the students then, but when you grow up and have the available resources at your perusal to identify microaggressions as such, you do see how the harmless was not really so. To add to it, there were teachers who proudly boasted of their Brahminical identity (in a Jesuit school nonetheless) inside the classroom and associated their fair skin tone with it, with no context to legitimise having such an unnecessary and casteist conversation in a classroom full of young, impressionable kids coming from various caste backgrounds. There were a lot more incidents of bullying and harassment that were driven specifically by the factors of gender, sexuality, religion, caste and class, among others. Yet, the thousands of kids studying in a school just minutes away from the Delhi LG office, were left to grapple with the immense feelings of fear, overwhelm and anger on their own. Approaching teachers and principals was hardly ever an option and even if you did, you would be met with scorn and chided again for not being able to handle your stuff on your own, with the school taking zero accountability.
Now, I am not sure if the presence of a counsellor would have solved every incident and made every student feel safe and secure in the school space, but it could have been a start, at least. When you think that if even such privileged spaces stay insulated from the mental health discourse around teenagers and young children, you cannot even begin to imagine the situation in spaces with less privilege and resources. With student suicides becoming a thing of everyday life, it is imperative that all the stakeholders involved in mentoring young children take up the issue of mental health seriously. Be it the school authorities, teachers, counsellors, parents, government bodies and the civil society, we all need to give up the very Indian mentality of living in denial when it comes to tackling difficult issues or having difficult conversations. Young children, like any other human being of any other age group, have a mental health and the way most of the schools function in India as a reflection of the biased and divided society lying outside the gated community of the school, their mental health is bound to get affected by all these factors and more.
The students need to be looked at as a diverse set of people rather than a homogenous mass just because they are all studying in the same school. Students come from different socio-cultural backgrounds and have varied amounts of privilege and capital. This acknowledgement of diversity cannot stop at the school admitting students from economically weaker sections as part of its administrative policy. We need to have counsellors in school and those who look at counselling not as something that exists in a social vacuum. Of course, the presence of counsellors raises pertinent questions around treating students as agential and consenting beings, a topic that merits a much more nuanced discussion that goes beyond the scope of this piece. Our schools are hierarchical and we can’t look away from that fact. The hierarchy is traumatising for a lot of the students and we need to consider this as an immediate cause for concern, lest we keep on stealing children of their dignity and selfhood.
We need to bring in the counsellor inside the classroom and make mental health a topic sans any taboo. When we can have students write their board exams for a subject called ‘Physical Education’, there should be no reason why we cannot have a curriculum on mental health. Training teachers in mental health first-aid and bringing in a fundamental upheaval as far as understanding the construction of identities and their effect on students is concerned could be a step in the right direction. Above all, we need to critically look at the institution of schools and not treat them as obscure egalitarian spaces existing in social isolation.
Image Source: http://www.schcounselor.com/
Ayushi Khemka created Mental Health Talks India in April 2018. She believes in channelising one’s vulnerabilities into an honest conversation that can potentially bring about a change in how we live and exist in the world. Living with depression and anxiety herself, she wishes to end the stigma around mental health in India. She is also a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University working on the intersections of gendered violence and social media.