Teachers and Mental Health

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OVER the next few weeks I’ll be talking about some important professions that I believe are not only taken for granted within our community but are also under-utilised in the mental health area. Sometimes we do not realise the roles that certain people can play, beyond their expected one and it is a real shortcoming for us all.

I’m going to start with an obvious one- teachers, who play an invaluable role in society. I always believed them to be the top of the professional food chain because, without them, there would literally be no other professions.

It is not an exaggeration to say that a good teacher can change a child’s life. Sorry, not just a child but any student under their care. What can teachers do? It’s a simple question but one with many answers. There is the obvious academic enhancement of math, English, science and so on but teachers do so much more than just simplify the complex.
They shape the next generation by teaching discipline, responsibility, and respect. A good teacher can be a role model who inspires their students to achieve goals, choose specific careers and even generally go down the right path in life. They teach practical, everyday skills that are needed to thrive in the adult world. Most importantly, they do this with the toughest audience – one that requires tremendous patience, understanding and forgiveness. Even more so, they do this with little financial reward; they really are unsung heroes.

Every child has some sort of unique skill or talent and the right teacher observes, listens, coaches and guides the student into revealing and enhancing these skills. All of this means that teachers increase our self-esteem and self-confidence. I still remember the great teachers of my school career and attribute a lot of my success to them and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Teachers can bring enthusiasm into a classroom as I remember always getting better grades in the classes with my favourite teachers.

Not meaning to insult any parent but many teachers spend as much time with children as their parents do. This means that the teacher’s characteristics will be observed and most likely modelled. In some circumstances, many students only have teachers to look up to.
Believe me when I tell you that the future of our nation is in the hands of the teachers within our nation.

Now, being in such a unique position, as a trusted source of advice and leadership, why does society tend to neglect this advantageous and already existing relationship? Now I get that teachers already work very hard and therefore, I am in no way suggesting that they also work as counsellors or psychologists. Teachers already work around the clock and their school day does not end when their students go home- physically or emotionally. However, can you imagine the difference it would make if teachers underwent some official training to identify risk factors of mental illness in their students?

If a teacher was trained to identify risk factors, warning signs, triggers, active signs and symptoms as well as substance use, many social ills in Guyana would drastically decrease. These include substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, school drop -out, self- harm and suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

As a teacher, why would you want this training? As Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” I want you all to know that many of us understand and appreciate your unique position in children’s lives.
How can this process start?

What I am suggesting would need to be a fully funded, official program to train teachers (at no cost to them). I actually believe it should be a requirement and a prerequisite for going into the profession.

Until this day comes, teachers can take it upon themselves to make the difference they are in the position to. They can educate both themselves and colleagues on the common mental health disorders in children/adolescents as well as their warning and active signs and symptoms. They can be aware of the help available within the community in case a referral to a professional needs to be made. They can provide a safe environment, one where students feel comfortable talking about mental health issues. They can be culturally sensitive and ensure that the other students are as well. To the worried parents whose child/children are being bullied, I suggest offering some kind of support to your local teacher as they also have an effect on your child’s bully.

All of the above can make teachers able to identify problematic changes in behaviour. There is a clear correlation between mental health issues and academic performance. This means that once again, a teacher is in a unique position to possibly spot warning signs before anyone else.

What can the general public do? Please remember that we have to take care of our teachers so they can in return, take care of us. Educating our teachers must be a priority, just behind acknowledging their grave importance.

Whoever has the job of paying attention to the needs of our teachers- and you all know who you are – I hope it continues to be a top priority, as the youth of Guyana are counting on (and need) teachers who are in a position to reach their greatest potential.

Thanking you for reading. Please keep sending any topics you’d like to talk about to caitlinvieira@gmail.com

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