Mental health problems among pupils can't be 'brushed under the carpet'
TheNationalUAE -

Mental health issues among young people are being "brushed under the carpet" and more needs to be done to support pupils in the UAE, a school counsellor said.

Experts stressed the importance of monitoring young people's well-being and ensuring suitable support networks are in place.

They said while awareness of mental health had risen significantly in the Emirates in recent years, many families were uncertain about how to get help.

Michelle Hughes, school counselor at GEMS Wellington Primary School in Dubai, said many parents feel priced out of accessing vital support services.

"I have been in the Middle East since 2006 and have noticed a huge increase in the public awareness toward mental health," she said.

"But, coming from Australia, I do feel that there is a still long way to go. The topic is still brushed under the carpet."

She said that in Australia, families have external support services and access to free-of-charge services, which is not the case in the UAE.

In Australia, children can also access helplines which provide helpful advice.

"For the families I Interact with there is not a lot of support if you do not have the money to pay," she said.

"If you cannot afford the support, there are very few places you can turn to outside of the school environment."

At the school, teachers take care to identify children who are stressed, especially before examinations.

The National spoke with young pupils at UAE schools who highlighted how people in authority - be it parents or teachers - can be of greater assistance.

Saheli Godahena, a 10-year-old Year Six pupil at Gems Wellington Primary School, said a simple way to help is to listen and be patient and understanding.

Saheli Godahena, a 10-year-old pupil at Gems Wellington Primary School, believes adults can help children with their problems by being patient and listening more. Reem Mohammed/The National

"It does not help when adults try and guess what is going on in a child's mind and try to force it out of the child," said the Sri Lankan pupil.

"Adults should be there when the child wants to talk about something and they need to listen properly."

Saja Amr, a 15-year-old Year 11 Egyptian pupil at Gems National School for Girls in Al Barsha, said she begins to feel anxious months before an examination.

"Teachers and parents support us and tell us things to do and calm us down. I would feel more confident if other people could relate to my situation," said Saja.

Chaltham Almanaei, another Year 11 pupil at the same school, believes there is too much pressure heaped on young people to achieve academic success.

"Everyone has limits to what they can achieve and people should accept that and not put so much pressure on children", said the 15-year-old Emirati learner.

The pupils are working to organise sessions at their school where children suffering from anxiety can seek help.

Abi Dunn, head of English and Secondary Inclusion at the school, said the primary focus on academic achievement at many schools placed a strain on young minds.

"We run extracurricular activities as that balance is really important for pupils to help maintain a good mental health," said Ms Dunn.

For World Mental Health Day, marked on Thursday, the school is running drop-in sessions to allow pupils to speak with a counsellor or the head of inclusion in a more informal setting.

In the run-up to examinations, the school organises well-being, yoga and relaxation sessions to help pupils.

"There has definitely been an improvement in the awareness of the need for good mental health for children," said Dunn.

"Listening to young people and making sure they feel heard is incredibly important. It’s not always about looking for a solution but making children feel like they have been understood."

Priya Mitchell, school counsellor at British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, said it was crucial to acknowledge that mental health problems are not merely confined to adulthood.

"It is important to recognise that children also have mental health problems. They should seek out counselors and therapists, and they have people who will listen to them," said Ms Mitchell.

The school has strong well-being policies in place, and yoga sessions and workshops are organised to educate people about mental health.

Updated: October 9, 2019 05:28 PM

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