A need indeed

World Health Organization, in a very recent survey conducted in 130 countries of the world found that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, thus, increased the demand for mental health worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded an unprecedented situation before humankind. It was entirely different from wars or usual conflicts which come with gradual causes and warnings. But, this deadly disease came without any knock, and killed around 1.7 Million people across the globe till last Sunday. It resulted also in, due to our response, social isolation, restrictions of activities, workplace closures, working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends, and colleagues, as well as associated financial losses and a considerable psychological burden on people. So the stress level increased manifold. WHO, from time to time issued various advisories for coping with such mental health issues during the pandemic. It also stressed on the individual countries to increase spending on mental health wellbeing.

Under that backdrop on July 21st of this year, while launching an initiative, under Atmanirbar Bharat, for mental health and counseling of students, called ‘Manodarpan’ the HRD Minister Mr. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, said that “COVID -19 is understandably a challenging time for everyone around the world. This global pandemic is not only a serious medical concern but also brings mixed emotions and psycho-social stress for all. With a specific focus on children and adolescents, there are emerging mental health concerns that are often reported in such situations. Children and adolescents may be more vulnerable and may experience a heightened level of stress, anxiety, and fearfulness, along with a range of other emotional and behavioral issues,

Launching such an initiative was the need of the hour. It aimed to provide emotional support and needful counseling to the students under distress due to the unprecedented times they were facing. To realize this, issuance of advisory guidelines from time to time, creation of web page and national toll-free numbers, interactive online chat options and, national-level database and directory of counselors were made part of such initiative.  Under this backdrop, the Higher Education Department, J&K (UT), issued an order(s), (Order No. 292 and 293 of HED 2020, Dated 27-7-2020), for the implementation of Manodarpan in letter and spirit. These orders sanctioned for framing of Central Coordination Committees, Executive Committees, and College level Psychological-cum Career Counselling and Placement Cells in every Degree College of Jammu and Kashmir. This was a timely and well-calculated effort for helping the students in crisis.  Since, in a situation like ours where we see an alarming rate of sudden heart attacks and suicides among young souls and an increase in substance abuse rates, the establishment of such cells were need indeed. The mandate of such cells is to cater, face to face counseling, online counseling, individual counseling, crisis intervention, trauma counseling, substance abuse counseling, adolescent counseling, and stress management. It also mandates them to conduct various levels of aptitude tests, English grammar, and verbal ability tests, training for group works and team effectiveness, training for communicative English/developing business communication skills, training on personality development, mock interviews, mock group discussions, resume preparation, model campus interview tests, job fair, etc. it sounds a full package for the overall development of a student.

The Psychological-Cum Career Counselling Cells of Degree Colleges which were established across J&K, have conducted “N” number of offline and online seminars/webinars, workshops, lecture series’, discussions, live counseling sessions so for, on different themes, especially on Mental Health, gender sensitization, career options, and Drug De-addiction. Their fundamental task, however, is student connect and creation of the database, where psychological Counselling is direly needed. The psychological counseling cells are expected to provide psychological services like crisis intervention in academic problems, stress and anxiety issues, emotional distress, family problems, relationship difficulties, and also provision of referral sources. Besides, school linkage is an essential part of such an initiative.  So the Psychological Counselling is a broader part of the Psychological cum Career Counselling cell of HED, not just limited to an extension of Manodarpan initiative. The latter is to be taken as the subset of the bigger initiative of HED, which is realized in a structured way by colleges. The committees, so framed, are working in greater coordination, supervision, and control.

On the ground, however, these cells face certain difficulties that need not be overlooked. The teachers/college level counselors (whom we refer to as Mental Health First Aid Facilitators, MHAF) should not be thought of as free birds, they are already overloaded with their own teaching and non-teaching assignments.  And often are available/deployed to render other essential or urgent services. So this simultaneous burden of MHAF, however, can be reduced if a parallel structure, technical support staff, are put in place for them, who will take care of financial, documentation, and statistical aspects, etc.  Secondly, separate funds need to be allotted/released for the conduct of such programs and for developing basic infrastructure for such Psychological Cells in colleges and it may be impressed upon all the college heads, to support, encourage, and to proactively involve one and all for implementing such initiative. Since, there is not Psychology Department in every Degree College, in such colleges, a non-psychology background person is designated/ nominated as a counselor, it is imperative to conduct an offline capacity building programs for such counselors on a priority basis. Moreover, the college counselors are assisted by the central committees in the facilitation of experts during the conduct of any online or offline program, MoUs be signed with some reputed agencies, institutes across the country for this purpose. With this, such an initiative must be started at the level of schools across the UT.

Author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at HKM, GDC, Bandipora. He is also District Coordinator for Psychological-cum Career Counseling, Bandipora.