October 10, 2023
Challenge of Working with Adolescents & Young adults in higher education’ institutes – A psychiatric social worker’s perspectives
Every now and then we come upon the fact of yet another student dying by suicide. Testimonies are given and taken, various people are blamed and trolled long before the police can carry out any investigation, and in no time at all, the tragedy of a family results in traumatizing a number of others who have often borne the student any ill-will. As someone who has spent three happy decades in a professional capacity in academic institutions - with managements, teachers, adolescents and young adults, I know that it is well within reach for every adult to ensure that students feel safe and make progress in any given academic set up. In this article I have tried to distil from my own experiences how this is possible, but before going into it, I would like to start with a few statements that I want all readers to ponder over.
• Every staff in any academic institution genuinely cares about the students placed in their care, and no staff ever wishes to see anyone dead, least of all through taking their own lives.
• Students who are disturbed do show signs and symptoms of disquiet even if they mostly come across as well-adjusted and cheerful. Although appearances can be deceptive, hindsight generally reveals a trail of signs that were missed or ignored.
• When disturbance is sensed, the most common reactions are to (i) keep quiet (ii) believe that there is nothing unusual because ‘all people have ups and downs’ (iii) think of it as a phase that will pass (iv) try to engage in other such avoidance behaviour.
• ‘Never speak ill of the dead’ is the axiom that kicks into action when tragedy strikes, which is why almost all testimonies paint glorious pictures rather than realistic pictures of the person who is gone.
I would like my article to be understood in the background of the above statements. It certainly is an honour to be a teacher, to be involved in the care of young people who look up to us for guidance and appreciation, to make their lives as students and our lives as teachers, worthwhile. The ways in which we can give it our best shot are what I have learned through my own experiences and those of my close colleagues.
More than 50% of our students are enrolled into courses not of their interest because of circumstances. Despite this, many of them would be able to do better if encouraged. It would be unfair and inaccurate to assume and label students as dumb and unintelligent because they may not be equipped with math-logical intelligence as desired in an engineering school. Understanding that they are talented and need encouragement to deal with the demands by guidance/individual attention/supervised peer-senior help, would pave way for enhanced learning capabilities of the students.
Our students come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and it is necessary to know that we do not know what they have been through. Our caring attitude may enable them to speak of their trials and challenges, and provide us with opportunities to help them or refer them suitably. We have observed that at any given point of time, over 50% of them, experience some problem or other that affects their academic and social functioning.
Children who have faced abuse, neglect and family dysfunction go through physical and mental health problems that plague them for life if not identified and sensitively dealt with. Professional help has to be encouraged at such times, by referral. The reasons as to why a student behaves in what appears to be an irresponsible way is because of several factors that even they themselves may not understand. Professional counselling services need to be utilised at such times. It is necessary to be objective and compassionate as a mentor to do our best for every student in our care.
Teachers in higher education institutes do possess academic qualifications to teach their subjects, but have not had an exposure to and understanding of normal and unusual adolescent’ behaviour, common problems faced by them and ways of addressing them, effective methods of teaching-learning in classrooms, awareness of their expectations and what enables them to function at their best to be productive-useful citizens of this universe. This lack of understanding and unresolved personal problems, is perhaps at the root of treating young people in our care with callousness by some of the teachers/administrators and their insensitivity when they break a rule or exhibit behaviours that seem challenging to us.
Effective criticism involves careful listening without judgement or evaluation. In place of exaggeration and generalisation, it would help to use descriptive communication to find acceptance as a fair and rational teacher. If a behaviour is found unpleasant, describe the behaviour and how that behaviour affects functioning. You may also indicate to students the consequences of that behaviour in a firm but gentle manner. One of the most important things to communicate to students is that you will not gossip about them with other teachers and students, and that you will not involve their parents and guardians without their permission and involvement. We are however, required to break the principle of confidentiality employing wisdom, if the counselee is suicidal or homicidal or is being sexually abused. It would do well for all of us to remember that the main cause of student suicide is public humiliation of the student, and so, committing to confidentiality and building trust are important to keep the student safe and on the path to progress.
Students expect that their teachers are friendly, knowledgeable, competent to deliver the subject matter inductively, ensuring two- way communication. The comprehension process would be effective if the teachers cater to the learning styles of students by adopting teaching styles that have auditory, visual and kinaesthetic experiences for the student. There is nothing more valuable than ‘learning by doing’ thereby linking it to theory.
While we may not be able to help all students in need, it would help immensely, if we do all we can, to help those we can. The truth is that we are constantly learning along with our students, from them, through them. Would we exist without them??
According to the 2020 figures, India has around 9,000 psychiatrists, 2,000 psychiatric nurses, 1,000 each psychiatric social workers and clinical psychologists while it is believed that for our population, we need 30,000 psychiatrists, 37,000 psychiatric nurses, 38,000 each psychiatric social workers and clinical psychologists.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) Report shows that over 13,000 students died at the rate of 35+ every day in 2021 with a rise by 4.5% from the previous year. It was noted that 8+% were due to failure in examinations, which means that more than 91% student suicides are from causes other than failing. In 2019, the 18-30 age group accounted for 35.1% of suicides in India. This speaks to us of a dire need for sensitivity towards youth. We have to remember that youth is the time of hormonal rush, of heightened emotions, of feeling the need to take risks and challenges, of being critical and questioning, and of chafing at all forms of restrictions and control.
While it is not possible to have full-fledged mental health professionals in schools and colleges, we can certainly invest in training the teachers in understanding adolescents and what pushes them to the brink of suicide, and introduce them to the basics of useful counselling skills and techniques and appropriate referrals, so that the loss of precious lives prematurely in professional colleges can be drastically brought down. Simultaneously it may be necessary to ensure that all teachers are equipped at the time of induction into a professional college with a minimum three month’ orientation to adolescent psychology, effective teaching-learning styles, life skills training and stress management.
The World Health Organisation has mandated that school children should be equipped with life skills of Self-awareness, Effective Communication, Empathy, healthy interpersonal relationships, Creative thinking, Critical thinking, Decision making, Problem solving, Coping with Emotion and coping with Stress, that is, the full gamut of what is called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Surprisingly, when the students are questioned about it during their orientation in institutions of higher education, we have seen that over 95% of them at the post 10+2 level, have not had any exposure to it. It is necessary that school teachers learn and impart these skills effectively to students because any student who is exposed to life skills would not engage in self-harming behaviour unless perhaps impacted by a serious mental illness or severe pressures.
As a qualified Psychiatric Social Work professional, I worked at the NMAM Institute of Technology from 1990 and began the training of teachers and administrators in higher education at the State-National levels through four-day learning and development intervention modules, having perceived the need to improve the lives of the students by empowering the teachers with basic knowledge, skills and attitudes to help the young people under their care. It was called ‘Understanding our Adolescents, Prevention of Suicide and Introduction to Therapeutic Counselling for Teachers and Administrators in Higher Education’. Nine such programmes were effectively conducted with a maximum of 50 teachers each time till July 2019 with the help of like-minded professionals who included Psychiatric Social Workers, Clinical Psychologists and Psychiatrists. After a gap of three years, this exercise with suitable modifications was shared with 53 faculty members/administrators and practising counsellors from 12 higher education institutes from the July 18 to July 21 in NMAMIT and was again found to be useful by the very encouraging feedback that we have received. We feel gratified that we have influenced yet another bunch of professionals who will carry it forward. The challenge is to ensure that all our teachers in engineering and medical schools have the advantage of such training programmes so that the students under their care, flourish.