We need to talk

It’s Children’s Mental Health Week this week (1-7 February), and there’s plenty going on across our schools to raise awareness of this all-important topic. Data indicates that 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental health conditions. Yet sadly the majority of them do not seek help or receive care. And COVID-19 has only exasperated the situation, with youngsters spending more time at home, on screens, and away from friends.

As we shine a light on Children’s Mental Health Week, Maria Veena Aruldass, Psychology Teacher and School Counsellor (Grades 9-12) at GEMS Modern Academy, tells us how she facilitated students and the counselling department, to develop ‘Unravelling Thoughts’, a peer-to-peer counselling initiative that is transforming the way students communicate their emotional needs.

Maria Veena Aruldass (centre) with student co-founders Diya Bansal (left) and Dia Zavery (right).

“In July 2020, the student councillors at GEMS Modern Academy and I spotted a trend that we didn’t like. We observed that as distance learning continued, students were engaging less emotionally. It was something we knew could happen, but we needed to stop it from getting worse.

We needed an open forum online that students felt could be a safe space to communicate and where support could be quickly offered – and the solution came from the students themselves.

Two students, Diya Bansal and Dia Zavery, studying IT and Psychology respectively, helped us develop a chat-based website, where students can log-in anonymously and share their concerns online, knowing there is another student on the other side helping them.

The students really took the lead, and our counselling and senior leadership teams supported them as they built and tested the site, came up with the name, and recruited volunteers to get the project up and running. It was amazing to see students care for each other and work to produce something that will significantly help a student in need.

The Unravelling Thoughts programme is something that the school and the students take very seriously. We carefully selected our volunteers, who even took an oath of confidentiality and anonymity. It’s a huge responsibility, and they’ve approached it with great empathy and maturity.

Since the launch last summer there has been a steady increase in use. When we launched we were not promoting the site via social media, relying instead on teachers mentioning it in assemblies and newsletters. Adding social media as a channel to drive awareness has significantly helped, and we now collaborate with art students to create unique imagery for our social media pages.

Since August we’ve had over 3,000 web views and 1,000 log-ins. Initially the programme was aimed only at Grade 12. Then we extended it to Grades 10-12, and in August we opened it up so that it’s accessible for students from Grade 7.

The initiative has helped our school learn more about the issues that our students are facing, and it’s enabled us to address these issues in a holistic way. Many of the calls we receive have been on exam stress, anxiety and family issues. This can be a lot for the student volunteers to deal with, as they also have their own struggles, so I play a key role in meeting with volunteers to ensure they’re coping well. If they encounter an emergency situation the case is immediately escalated to the council and we will reach out immediately.

Principal Nargish Khambatta has been very supportive of the initiative, right from the beginning. She was also meticulous about confidentiality and safety throughout, and rightly so. I know that she would love to see Unravelling Thoughts replicated in other schools, and so would I.

I’ve learned a great deal through this process. I think we’ve all learned together – staff and students. One thing that’s become very apparent to me is that the students want to help each other through difficult periods. Talking to someone that you can identify with, even anonymously, can make such a difference.”