Addressing Mental health issues among school students in Bhutan

The prevalence of mental health issues among many school students has become a pressing concern in Bhutan.

According to a counsellor from one of the schools in Dagana, the factors contributing to the mental health issues among the students include academic pressure, last-minute exam preparation, family problems, peer pressure, substance abuse, and unmet basic needs. Tragically, the devastating consequences of mental health problems, such as suicide, have been witnessed in the country, emphasizing the urgent need for the support.

The statistics reveal a significant rise in suicide cases in recent years. In 2022 alone, there were 112 recorded suicides, marking the highest rate to date. Among the victims, 3 were below 12 years of age, 12 were aged 13-19, and 56 were between 20-39 years old.

Two weeks ago, a 21-year-old man died by suicide in Bebena, Thimphu. The forensic report indicated no foul play. The deceased was a Class 12 pass student of 2022, and it was revealed that he did not qualify for higher studies.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 2022, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens and young adults between 10-34 years of age.

World Health Organization (WHO) reports cite suicide as the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds. Most of them are students in schools or colleges in the above mentioned age range and it happens most often due to the psychological damage and mental health issues.

A psychiatrist at JDWNRH, Dr Damber Kumar Nirola, emphasized that mental health issues affect individuals differently due to their diverse personalities and varying degrees of psychological resilience. It is crucial to foster a supportive environment within schools and communities, promoting mental health awareness and destigmatizing seeking help.

While there has been increasing cases of mental health issues among the school students and is further fueled with the shortage of school counsellors. While the recommended standard calls for one counsellor for every 400 students, the current number falls short of this goal. There were around 19 resignations in the counselling service during the first five months of this year, which is a concern in providing the quality counselling services to the students.

Recognizing the importance of mental health support in schools, the Ministry of Education and Skills Development has taken steps to address the shortage of school counsellors. As a solution, Wellbeing Focal Teachers have been appointed in every school, regardless of whether they already have a counsellor. These teachers are provided with the comprehensive training programs to enhance their effectiveness in supporting students’ mental well-being.

However, concerns have been raised regarding the role of Wellbeing Focal Teachers. A student from one of the schools in Thimphu argue that other subject teachers may not be the most suitable individuals for students to approach with their personal issues. He believes that counsellors should be independent and solely focused on providing moral support and promoting well-being among students. It is important to create an environment where students feel comfortable seeking help without fear of judgment or stigma.

A counsellor from one of the schools in Thimphu shared school guidance counsellors (SGCs) face numerous barriers in their efforts to assist students effectively. The overwhelming student-to-counsellor ratio in many schools prevents them from catering to all those in need. If two counsellors (male and female) are available in schools, then it will be easy as there will be cases where some students cannot share issues to opposite gender, many schools still lack this essential support.

He also said that the easy availability of tobacco and other substances in the market contributes to unhealthy coping mechanisms among students, further deterring them from seeking help.

“Parental non-cooperation and the societal stigma associated with seeking assistance also pose significant challenges,” he added.

To overcome these barriers, online support services have been introduced to reach students who are unable or hesitant to seek face-to-face help. This approach aims to provide a safe and accessible platform for students to express their concerns and receive guidance from professionals.

Mental health experts point out that in order to address the mental health issues it is imperative to ensure an adequate number of qualified counsellors in schools, provide comprehensive training for teachers and staff, promote mental health education and awareness, and establish effective communication channels to encourage students to seek help without fear of judgment.

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