He is different from others in the classroom, avoids people and his grades/marks keep fluctuating. For teachers who come across such children in their classroom, psychiatrists have a word of advice. These may be signs of the onset of mental health problems, which need to be identified at the young age itself.

In an effort to identify and treat mental health or psychiatric problems of adolescents, the Department of Health and Family Welfare on Monday launched the ‘School Mental Health Programme,' with suicide prevention as one of its main areas of focus. Health Minister M.R.K. Panneerselvam and Health Secretary V.K. Subburaj participated in the launch.

The programme would be attached to the district mental health programme and implemented in various districts. To start with, medical health professionals, including clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and social welfare counsellors, are being sensitised.

According to M. Thirunavakarasu, president-elect, Indian Psychiatric Society, about 40 per cent of children in India suffer from mental health problems. “Suicide is the sixth main cause of death in India, while in adolescents between 12 and 19 years suicide or accident are the main causes of death,” he says.

While most private schools have in-house teachers doubling up as counsellors, Indian Psychiatric Society found that it has not been very effective as many students do not confide in a part-time counsellor or teacher. “A counsellor must be someone from outside the school. It is expensive but the purpose can be achieved,” says Dr. Thirunavakarasu.

The department would be creating awareness for principals and teachers on problems related to adolescence, matters on wellness and need for counselling cells in schools, rather than talking directly about the illness.

Some schools have extended such programmes to include parents too. A government school in Erode invites parents every Saturday for counselling.

Most CBSE schools have a visiting counsellor, some who even take classes in value education.

“It is a good move but the challenge would be to see if every school gets a counsellor or how often the counsellor makes a visit to the school,” says R. Arthanari, president, Chennai region, T.N. Higher Secondary Schools Headmasters' Association. “On a one-off case, it is teachers who play the role as counsellor but children do not open up much as they are unsure if the teacher would mock his/her family history in the next class.”

Counsellors say winning the student's trust is the biggest challenge in attending to mental health problems. Besides, parents and extra-curricular activities play a role in enhancing a child's self-esteem.

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Liffy ThomasJune 28, 2012