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Dubai students seek on-site counsellors at schools

Students shed taboo attached to counselling, say they welcome counsellors

An Abu Dhabi-based student who had a break down due to stress caused by a heavy course load, says on-site counsellors in schools should be made mandatory.

After taking on an extremely rigorous workload in school, Indian expatriate, Pragya Chawla told Khaleej Times she had a "full blown burnout", which ultimately led to her taking a month and a half off school.

But now she has bounced back from her ordeal - and has since been accepted to Stanford University in the US - Chawla wants to put the spotlight on mental health awareness in schools.

Education must aim at increasing happiness level

Dr Abdulla Al Karam, Director General, KHDA

British economist and researcher Lord Richard Layard has said that the sole purpose of education is to develop capacities that increase the happiness of students and the rest of society. This may feel at odds with what we've traditionally perceived as the purpose of education: to give students a knowledge base that prepares them for work.

When we look at the research into adult happiness, we find that it isn't academic results at school or university which contribute most to our sense of wellbeing, but mental and physical health, as well as the relationships we form with others. If we look at it this way, it makes sense that schools should be preparing our children to live happy and healthy lives.

A strong sense of wellbeing is important for everyone in the education community. This is partly because happiness leads to more effective teaching and learning, and ultimately, an improved education sector. But happiness is also important because our intrinsic value as humans lies not just in the function we perform in society, but in how much we contribute and give to each other.

It's easy to think that if the education we had when we were students was good enough for us, then it must be so for our children also. Yet in a recent report, the World Economic Forum predicted that 65 per cent of children who are starting school now will be working in jobs that don't yet exist. The question that immediately comes to mind is: if we don't know what jobs today's kids will be doing tomorrow, how can we know which subjects they need to study? The answer is simple: we can't.

What we can do, however, is focus less on the importance of academics and more on the skills and values that will enable students to lead happy and productive professional and personal lives.

Recently, we signed an agreement with the International Positive Education Network to help introduce more wellbeing and happiness practices into Dubai's schools. From October, we'll also be undertaking the first ever wellbeing census of students in Dubai.

We know that a number of schools have already appointed teachers to integrate positive practices into their policies and teaching approach, and it's wonderful to see schools educating the heart as well as the mind.

Our children are our future. To give them the best education, we must also think to the future and equip them with not just knowledge, but also skills and values.

"The role of a counsellor in school is irreplaceable. They help guide students, and one of the unexpected collateral damages of no on-site counsellor is that a student's aspirations narrow," she said.

Though Chawla is going on to study engineering at college, it was her focus on issues outside the classroom that helped her gain entry into one of the US's most prestigious campuses.

"I focused a lot of my efforts on establishing a supportive network surrounding mental health issues for my school peers."

After experiencing personal issues herself as a direct impact of her school workload, she said she felt "compelled to help others", because at that time her school had no dedicated counsellor.

"We just started to talk openly about mental health issues. We have a lot of pleasantries in this world but very few are facing the real issues head on. I wanted to do that."

With most of the support being offered during after-school hours through online interactions and phone calls, Chawla said that just "being there for someone" is an effective way to help people in crisis.

"I felt like it was my job to guide these people and support them. I helped them write essays, book appointments etc. I felt like playing the role of counsellor."

After students opened up to Chawla in her support group, she said the overriding theme was that most students saw their school as a "safer place than home". And that's a positive sentiment that needs to be utilised.

"Some of the students I spoke to had family members suffering from severe mental health issues at home. And a lot of stress was being taken out on them. They saw the school as a safe place, and the support group as a safety cushion. So lets make that a permanent fixture for them in schools."

Chawla said although most people learn basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR, a first aid for cardiac arrests), she now wants to make it "a habit" that school administrations and students to learn the basics of "psychological first aid".

"I took a course online in a bid to better position myself to give support to my peers. I am in no way a professional on this but I think it is imperative schools establish a good, solid team to ensure the wellbeing of all it's students."

KHDA census

Back in February, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) announced that it was launching a wellbeing census to maintain students' happiness in Dubai schools.

In its first phase of a five-year project, the census will collect essential data from around 70,000 children in private schools here, in a bid to find out how they are coping in school.

Although schools are not legally obliged to house on-site counsellors here, the KHDA has encouraged schools to do so in a bid to address a student's non-academic issues and it's a move that has been heartily welcomed by child psychiatrists, parents and students alike.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Dr Amy Bailey, clinical psychologist and head of psychology at kidsFIRST Medical Centre, said having a counsellor within the school increases accessibility of support for young people.

"With significant mental health difficulties identified in today's youth and knowledge that early intervention can boost resiliency and reduce more long-term mental health difficulties, this access is important."

When it comes to the main concerns of pupils here in the UAE, in her experience she said "high levels of anxiety" tops the list.

"They worry that without the right grades, they will not have a successful future. By leaving these challenges unprocessed, this enables them to develop into anxieties."

She said children from cultures that are comfortable with accessing psychological support, tend to be more likely to do so as they do not experience shame in asking for this help. But she said in a society of mixed nationalities, issues of openness can be a challenge.

"That being said, a broad spectrum of nationalities access support and the stigma attached to psychology is less present. By having a counsellor as part of the school, this helps to normalise that all children and young people need support from time to time."

Dr Bailey said what school counsellors can offer is "whole school programmes" (eg: sessions to a whole class on mindfulness) as they can ensure all children benefit from the presence of the counsellor in school.

"This also makes the counsellor more accessible as he/she is someone familiar to the student."


Read more: http://www.khaleejtimes.com/news/education/dubai-students-call-for-on-site-counsellors-at-achools