Let’s recognize mental health issues in schools

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We’re over a month into the second term, and for learners in Candidate classes, things are getting hotter. According to the school calendar, the second trimester is very important because candidates take mock exams.

In many schools, mock exams offer for the first time the opportunity to take all exams, including practicals, in preparation for the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) final exams.

However, due to academic pressure, there are many problems. One of them is mental illness. It should be noted that school stress and its impact on mental health is a well-documented topic.

Sanity is an active state of mind that allows a person to use their abilities in coordination with the common human principles of society. Therefore, mental health is the backbone of human life.

In his article titled “Mental Health in Uganda”, Dr. James Kagaari argues that despite its importance, mental health is often the lowest priority among health issues. So, in low- and middle-income countries like Uganda where disease, ignorance and poverty are common, demanding constant mental health care can seem like a luxury (WHO, 2019).

According to the latest report from the Uganda Counseling Association (UCA) and the Ministry of Health, 14 million Ugandans are mentally ill. This means that 35 out of 100 Ugandans could be struggling with a mental health problem. And that includes primary and secondary school students.

It is common for strange behaviors to appear at school as the term progresses, mainly due to academic pressure. Academic pressure comes from ambitious academic goals that students set for themselves, high expectations from parents, or demands that society places on them. Research shows that school stress leads to less well-being and an increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression.

Additionally, students also exhibit anger management issues and obsessive-compulsive disorder, characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to compulsive behaviors. One of them is endless reading of books and engaging in prayers, without pause or rest.
Over the years, I have also noticed that when academic pressure reaches intense levels, students tend to engage in various activities to ease that pressure. Among these are prayers and sports.

These are all attempts to alleviate their anxiety, depression, and related mental issues. All of that is good, but too much of everything is bad.

As we have learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, schools are essential in our communities to support children and families. The general expectation is that in addition to classroom education, schools should also provide opportunities for learners to engage in social, mental and physical health activities, all of which can relieve stress.

The truth is, schools struggle to contain students, and as academic pressure escalates, so do bouts of anxiety, depression, anger management, stress, substance abuse (especially boys), obsessive-compulsive disorder and sometimes personality disorders.

The result of these include academic failure, behavioral problems (including suicide), all of which are catastrophic for school administrations, parents and the community.

Thus, we should actively educate schools about mental health issues and make teachers, parents and students understand that mental illness is like all the other illnesses that we often bring into health facilities to treat. When academic pressure intensifies, emotional and psychological depression often occurs and should not be treated as normal. However, steps must be taken to alleviate these mental problems in schools.

As Henry Nsubuga, Director of the Counseling and Guidance Center at Makerere University says, good or bad mental health is contagious, just like the flu or Covid-19, and “if any of us does not go well and is not supported, it will contaminate and affect others”. .

Mr. Emmanuel Angoda is a teacher at Lira Town College.

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