For most of us, academic achievements are a symbol of what we are and represent. Our identities are based on what we’ve achieved.
Most of that is a result of the mental conditioning that we’ve been forced to embrace — that mark sheets and certificates are badges of honour. As a result of that, schools, over the years, have become increasingly competitive to go one-up over others to produce more such achievers.
Increasing competition leads to higher stress levels — for all parties involved — which in turn leads to situations that can often turn ugly and depressing. And, these have potential long-term effects. A study titled, School psychology in India: A vision for the future, contends that about 48 million students “may be at risk and need help for a variety of cognitive, social-emotional and behavioural problems.” Yes, 48 million and this was published in 2012!
And, here’s another staggering fact from the paper. Almost 3,000 children of the 0-14 year age group committed suicide, and 14% of the cases were due to failure in examinations or mental health issues.
Parents, often considered role models, are increasingly finding themselves at a loss when confronted with their children’s problems at school. Parenting is an acquired art. It requires an adult to cultivate the willingness to learn and keep moving along with the growth arc of a child. It is imperative for a parent to catch the subtle cues or acknowledge the need to intervene in matters that children cannot handle by themselves.
And, here’s where a proper understanding of psychology — for both the parent and the child — can help.
How studying psychology helps
An understanding of the underlying cognitive processes helps students realise the bottlenecks and conflicts that prevent them from being effective and developing sound social skills. It imparts crucial life lessons. Understanding the whys of our every action helps us to look at things dispassionately. We will then understand that there are two distinct forces that dictate any situation — drives and their manifestation.
Here is an example to illustrate my point.
Most of what parents get mad at are the manifestations — the low scores, lack of a disciplined approach to studies, constant mood swings, and so on. Very rarely do they realise or look at these problematic manifestations in the form of an internal drive or a conflict. They look at the surface and give superficial treatments in the form of imposing power over their children. These do not help at all. Only the understanding the whys of our actions — the reasons, the drives and the urges that manifest as certain behaviour — will help us getting to the bottom of any issue.
But don’t we all judge others by their actions? They are the only tangible elements that we can perceive or react to. It’s very difficult to get into the cognitive aspect of any action and give the benefit of doubt to others. Here’s where psychology helps.
It helps people jettison their biases. It helps people become more empathetic and understand others — two elements play a key role in shaping the outlook and worldview of a person. So incorporating psychology as a standard subject in high schools may hold the key to us becoming a more tolerant and civil society.
One of the main problems with tackling mental health issues is the fear of being ostracized. There’s a taboo surrounding visiting psychologists or mental health clinics. Very rarely do we find ourselves wanting to go to a psychiatrist to solve our issues. We prefer to solve our problems by talking to our people within the four walls of our rooms out of the fear of being judged. While talking and sharing our problems help, it doesn’t serve as a substitute for getting a systematic therapy from a trained specialist. So there’s also a need to make psychology an accessible and a necessary subject, in terms of how mental health is perceived, and breaking down unnecessary and unwarranted notions.
Seeds sown during childhood
Broadly, three key elements decide the course of an average adult. They are: self-awareness, social skills and ability to cope stress. The seeds of all these three important components are sown during childhood. These three also remain an integral part of the Emotional Intelligence (EI) competencies.
EI revolves around the understanding of skills that help us develop a capacity to be aware of ourselves and others. It is not a tangible measure, that is to say, we cannot quantify it to a great level of accuracy or theorise it after a certain point. And, it is this very nature of EI that makes it evade the grasp of many. And, psychology can be one the most powerful tools to understand it.
Daniel Goleman, in his bestseller book Emotional Intelligence, defined EI as:
“…a different way of being smart. It includes knowing your feelings and using them to make good decisions; managing your feelings well; motivating yourself with zeal and persistence; maintaining hope in the face of frustration; exhibiting empathy and compassion; interacting smoothly; and managing your relationships effectively. Those emotional skills matter immensely – in marriage and families, in career and the workplace, for health and contentment.”
Isn’t that like the recipe for success?
A research paper titled, Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings and Implications, found a person with high emotional intelligence was better equipped to solve social problems and less prone to self-destructive behaviours. Interestingly, it also found that high EI people are also characterised by openness and agreeableness — key elements that make up the Big 5 factors of personality. It would be safe to say that EI, that is nurtured early and under the supervision of a trained teacher, can help a student develop a positive personality.
What’s the way forward?
Education is a means to achieve exposure — one that is aimed at removing our myopic view and liberating us. It is a means to achieve an end and not the end itself. Psychological studies open the mind to the possibility of understanding the underlying processes and drives that make us who we are. It provides a perspective that helps us understand ourselves better which is the first step in tackling any societal problems.
The key lies in providing a methodically supervised and a carefully curated curriculum that will maximise that extent of learning among students. A curriculum that helps them understand themselves better in any given social context. Academics need to leverage the advantage of the fact that high school students, largely, are highly impressionable and any learning at this stage of development can have a lasting impression. This, supplemented with in-school counselling, can even help children overcome the lack of social support owing to a changing family structures and social trends.
A curriculum that has psychology as one of its main components is an experiment that can yield positive results in the long term. A syllabus with a focus on social, developmental and behavioural psychology can help students understand themselves better, and in the process help their parents understand their role better too.
Psychology examinations need not be necessarily be written ones. A true understanding of psychology is achieved only when we go beyond the constraints of words, theories and statistics. It has to be experiential learning, with an examination that doesn’t focus on the whats but the whys of our actions or behaviours.
Addressing mental health issues should also go beyond education. India’s health care expenditure is one of the lowest. In April, a Parliamentary Standing Committee had expressed its concern about national health outcomes being “jeopardised” due to budget shortage. The panel stated that if the government had to reach its target of investing 2.5% of the GDP for health care, the Centre has to increase health budget by 147% over the 2015-16 allocation. The panel had also stated that the National Health Mission, that provides accessible and affordable health care to the rural population, was allocated only 45% of the funding originally envisaged in the 12th Five Year Plan.
A multi-pronged approach – involving parents, teachers and the governments – is the need of the hour. And, tweaking our education should be the first step.
Sriram Sivaraman is working with The Hindu and runs cyberpsychology.in. His interests include cyberpsychology, dream interpretation, eastern philosophy and intercultural studies.