Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Editorial | Facing emotional challenges in schools

Published:Monday | May 25, 2020 | 12:11 AM

LAST WEEK’S announcement of a programme to improve mental health literacy in Jamaica’s schools is, on the face of it, a welcome project that should be of value to students and teachers and, ultimately, the wider society.

But the authorities must provide details of the scheme, including how it is to be executed, so that stakeholders can be assured that it isn’t, or doesn’t become, another of those initiatives where announcement is conflated with action and achievement. They should also have an opportunity to make a judgement of the likely merits of the programme.

For, given the circumstances, it would probably make sense that the Government quickly scale up the venture to include the entire school system and interventions in communities.

First, though, it would be useful to know whether what Dr Kasan Troupe, the chief education officer, disclosed last week was the same as the mental health curriculum that Alando Terrelonge, the junior education minister, promised would have been introduced at the start of the school year in September, but of which the teachers’ union knew nothing of substance.

According to Dr Troupe, the project, which is being supported by the Pan American Health Organization will be piloted in 30 of 118 troubled schools, where the education ministry has implemented the Positive Behavioural Intervention and Support programme – a scheme to help schools with significant levels of behavioural problems.

“This intervention is a comprehensive response in terms of all stakeholders,” Troupe said. “While our primary stakeholders are our students, all persons are able to benefit. Therefore, if teachers are not coping well, they are supposed to get support.”

How teachers will be afforded work-related emotional or any other form of mental health support is not clear. But we expect that in similar proportion to the wider society, they need the help.

MENTAL PROBLEMS

Not only is theirs, in Jamaica’s environment, an often high-stress job; researchers, such as psychiatrist Frederick Hickling, who died this month, point to a higher-than-average incidence of mental problems in the island.

Professor Hickling suggested that when all conditions are taken into account, maybe up to 70 per cent of Jamaica suffered from some form of mental illness.

Current circumstances – fear, social disruption and the economic anxieties wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic – will have exacerbated the conditions for mental illnesses generally, as well as in schools. The effects will linger long after the novel coronavirus has passed.

Indeed, Maureen Samms-Vaughan, an expert in child and adolescent health, development and behaviour at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, has warned of the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Jamaican children who are suffering upheavals from the pandemic.

“They had the anxiety of persons around them, almost constant information from the news, daily counts, disruption in their normal school life, home life and social life … ,” said Professor Samms-Vaughan. There is the anxiety over adults becoming ill and of the deaths associated with the virus. “That is a lot for our children,” she said.

BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS

Many of the symptoms of the PTSD which Professor Samms-Vaughan articulated will play out in classrooms when students and teachers return to the physical school setting. In many instances they will be categorised merely as behavioural problems of unruly children. In homes, especially the poorest ones, where parents struggle for their daily livelihoods, the underlying causes for presumed misbehaviour by the children are probably being missed. In any event, caregivers have, at best, limited access to support services for these problems.

In the first half of the 2000s, Professor Hickling and his team at the Caribbean Institute of Mental Health and Substance Abuse (CARIMENSA) at the UWI, Mona, showed that by employing psychological techniques that were taught to teachers, it was possible not only to quickly change behaviours among children, but radically improve grades.

Unfortunately, that project didn’t go much beyond the 1,500 students in 70 schools that were part of the project. It lapsed for lack of funding.

If the new project can replicate the success of CARIMENSA’s effort of more than a dozen years ago, it will be worth the effort and deserving of upscaling. Quickly!

People, however, need to be told more about the initiative and its projected outcomes.