A SENATE hearing earlier this week revealed a growing problem among schoolchildren resulting from the long lockdowns at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The hearing, convened by the Senate Committee on Basic Education, revolved around Senate Bill (SB) 379, which is aimed at “strengthening the promotion and delivery of mental health services in basic education schools.”
The Department of Education's (DepEd) Assistant Secretary Dexter Galban, one of the resource1 persons invited by the committee, emphasized the need to ensure the mental wellness of students who have been forced out of their classrooms by the pandemic.
The separation from teachers and classmates and the social isolation of being confined to their homes have put a strain on the students' mental health, Galban said.
He pointed to the rise in the number of students who attempted to take their own lives as evidence of how the problem has grown.
DepEd data from 2021 showed that a total of 2,147 students had attempted suicide, and 404 actually took their own lives.
Galban said that “even one suicide case is too much.”
“This is an alarming rate that continues to go up, given the transition from face-to-face to online provided a strain on our learners,” he said.
The problem is global. A 2021 United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) report estimated that 13 percent of adolescents — those between 10 and 19 years old — live with a diagnosed mental disorder, mainly from pandemic-induced stress and disruption in their lives.
Unicef reviewed the conditions of 130,000 children from 22 countries for the report.
A research consultant with Unicef who worked on the report said “government-imposed lockdowns, school closures and disruption of services (including mental health care) have led to increased reports of fear and stress, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, inattention, alcohol/substance, along with irregular physical activity and sleep patterns.”
Among the report's key findings are that children living in poverty or in a lower socioeconomic status are at greater risk of stress and depression, and that family conflict amplifies the risk of mental distress among children and adolescents.
Galban told the Senate hearing that the DepEd had interventions in place for learners with mental health issues, chiefly guidance counseling. Unfortunately, there are not enough guidance counselors to handle the growing caseload.
In 2021, Galban said, 775,962 students sought advice from guidance counselors. But there are only 2,093 licensed guidance counselors in the country's 60,957 schools, he added.
“For a population group of 28 million, the ideal ratio is not hit. The recommended ratio is 1:250,” he said.
The DepEd has since improved the ratio to one counselor per 500 learners, but it's still not enough.
Positions for guidance counselors remain unfilled because the entry level salary of P27,000 is simply too low, Galban said.
The agency has been asking for a pay salary grade for guidance counselors, but the request has not been approved by the Department of Budget and Management.
SB 379 addresses the shortage of guidance counselors by establishing the Mental Health and Well-Being Program.
Under the program, a Mental Health and Well-Being Center will be set up in every school, staffed with guidance counselors and associates whose pay grade will be upgraded.
The measure also calls for schools offering teacher education courses to include subjects on mental health in their curriculum.
In the meantime, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, the chairman of the panel who also sponsored SB 379, is proposing that teachers be trained to detect the symptoms of depression or other forms of mental health issues in a student.
The return to the classroom environment does not mean that threats to the mental well-being of learners have waned. According to the Centers for Disease Control, mental disorders “are chronic health conditions — conditions that last a long time and often don't go away completely — that can continue through the lifespan.”
“Without early diagnosis and treatment, children with mental disorders can have problems at home, in school, and in forming friendships,” the agency said.
Because it could leave deep and often hidden emotional scars, mental distress among schoolchildren is a problem that we cannot afford to overlook.
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