BMC to appoint counsellors in over 1,500 civic schools

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BY SANJANA BHALERAO

THE father of 11-year-old Santosh, who studies at a municipal primary school in Kurla, is thankful to the ‘Personality Perform Change’ programme, and calls it a spiritual experience. He says his child, who struggled to express his feelings and hardly spoke to his classmates and teachers, is slowly regaining his self-esteem and confidence.

The programme is part of the curriculum prepared by non-profit Apni Shala, for imparting life skills and initiating talk about mental health in municipal schools.

Apni Shala was started in 2011 by three social entrepreneurship programme graduates of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). The organisation works to promote discussion on mental health in 15 municipal schools, among children in Classes 4 to 9. The schools are all in the Kurla-Govandi-Chembur areas.

When they started the pilot, little did the founders imagine that seven years later, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) would be considering appointing counsellors in over 1,500 schools across the city.EXPLAINED

Addressing a gap in kids’ all-round development

Among civic bodies, the BMC occupies a unique place, in that it goes beyond its mandated role of providing elementary education to the poor and underprivileged — over this, it runs secondary schools and has, in recent years, experimented with digital learning and more. Its move to offer the nearly 2.5 lakh students in its 1,500 schools access to mental healthcare will plug a critical hole in the all-round development of these children, many of them from derelict neighbourhoods. Mental health among schoolchildren is, unfortunately, not seen as a public health concern. Bearing that out is the fact that there is no data on how many students need help for mental or behavioural problems. Counsellors in these schools could begin to build that data. More importantly, simply having counsellors in municipal schools will help destigmatise mental illness.

The issue came to prominence after two suicide cases involving children came to light in October. A 13-year-old girl from a civic-run school in Sion committed suicide in her house after she was allegedly humiliated by her teacher for not completing homework. In another incident, a 14-year-old boy from Vasai took his life after being allegedly humiliated by a teacher for non-payment of fee.

The incidents have now led the civic body’s education department to prepare a plan for the inclusion of counsellors in schools and also to allocate a separate budget for mental health discussions in schools. “We have received the demand from corporators and teachers for the appointment of counsellors. The idea is being positively discussed. We are looking into an affiliation with NGOs and logistics like the number of counsellors required and even training of teachers,” said a senior civic official on the condition of anonymity.

Rohit Kumar, head of strategy and partnership at Apni Shala, said, “As a first step we are trying to de-stigmatise mental health. We are building an environment where the appointment of counsellors or reaching out to them in school for all involved — teachers, students and parents — is not looked down upon.”

“We are following a down-up approach. Other than the one-hour session for kids every week, we also have parent-teacher orientation talks and panel discussions among others,” he added.

The organisation has a curriculum for six years and aims to include at least 50 schools in the coming years.

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