Mental health, front and center
I was alerted early in the morning by a concerned former teacher and long-time correspondent, Professor Mamaril, about this newspaper’s front page headlining the student mental health crisis, as reported by the Department of Education (DepEd) at a Senate hearing. DepEd identified 404 students who took their lives in the previous academic year, along with more than 2,000 attempts, accompanied by the agency’s promise of hiring more guidance counselors.
Sadly, both school and mental health professionals won’t be shocked by this news as we have been grappling with this epidemic for many years, long before COVID even happened. What did surprise me is how it finally hit the front page. It is about time we recognize the far bigger, longer, more devastating epidemic facing our country: Our children are dying.
Yes, the quarantine policies set forth during the COVID pandemic accelerated the growth in suicide rates. Prolonged social isolation and the banning of leisure spaces and activities have exacerbated preexisting mental health conditions and developed new ones. In my recent visit to campus, I was surprised to see students in a long line that stretched from Vinzons Hall to Quezon Hall (roughly the length of the Sunken Garden) just to catch tickets to the long-awaited revival of the UP Fair. I was so relieved to see the return of such social events and, truth be told, have often argued that resumption of social events such as these are more urgent than face-to-face classes. Classes provide academic learning—but campus-based social and leisure events provide hope and motivation. One cannot learn without these two things. I have often counseled student clients that sometimes “more is more”: that adding an org life to school life can make school more bearable. The biggest mistake of our COVID-era policies was to strip away everything that fostered fun and enthusiasm. What was left was school requirements for students and Zoom meetings for workers. Is it any wonder that we are experiencing spikes in mental health risks?
I hope that DepEd takes this crisis seriously. While increasing the salaries of guidance counselors is a welcome step, it is nowhere near enough nor does it truly understand the magnitude of change needed to make a dent into the mental health crisis. The ideal ratio of counselor to student is pegged at one counselor per 500 students. Currently, we stand at the ratio of one counselor per 13,400 students. The picture is even worse: Most guidance counselors are not serving full-time, but instead also have teaching load. I have many graduate students who serve as guidance counselors in their schools and have shared with me their monstrous workload. One had even told me that they were assigned to cover three schools. One counselor. For three public schools.
Guidance counselors also require support and specialized training, as their basic training does not cover psychiatric conditions or crisis management. Currently, the bottleneck of service delivery occurs at referral—most students at this point require a referral to mental health professionals, and guidance counselors are running out of referred professionals with available slots. At the rate at which suicide risk is occurring, it would be ideal to complement the guidance office with in-house psychologists and psychiatrists to be able to address these issues properly.
Relegating the mental health crisis solely to guidance counselors also allows the rest of the educational system to avoid responsibility when it comes to its own role in a student’s mental health. Schools play an important function as a safe haven for students, as I’ve already opined in last week’s column. It is also important to look into our curricula to check for the meaningfulness of the topics and their respective requirements. One big risk factor to suicidal ideation is a sense of meaninglessness in the things that they are doing. Schools need not make things easier or more lenient; we simply need to effectively convey the meaningfulness and relevance of their learning activities. If we cannot identify this, then perhaps it is time to revisit why we have these activities to begin with.
Another important—and radical—change that is needed in our school system is to create ways to pace the learning in accordance with the student’s development. Concretely, this means doing away with big classroom setups that inevitably would have some students falling behind. An advantage to being forced into remote learning was the discovery of numerous technologies and learning tools that allow for more self-paced and developmental modes of learning. This is why I’m especially frustrated with the government’s simplistic pronouncements of “remote learning does not work” and mandating face-to-face classes without incorporating the innovations in teaching during the last three years. It’ll take more than just raising the pay of guidance counselors to solve this crisis.
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