We need professional mental health services in schools

April 15, 2022 | 05:47 pm PT
Nga Than Researcher
My sister has ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition that affects her ability to focus. She was diagnosed with it in her early teens.

However, my parents never talked about it or tried to seek proper treatment for it. Maybe they did not have the financial resources to do it, or maybe they did not realize how it would affect her.

The problem got worse when she reached high school. The stress of being a better than average high school student and getting into a good university was intense. Preparations for the university entrance examination, stressful for most students and parents, were even more so for my sister and my parents.

Sometimes, I heard my mother and sister get into a shouting match because they could not understand each other. For many adults, my sister was not a well behaved high school student. She defied her parents and did not listen to her teachers in school. From my sister's perspective, nobody understood her or her problems.

Luckily, she found solace and space to express herself in the art of makeup, and pursued it on the side with approval from my parents. She would spend her weekends going to weddings and proms to do make up, often for women much older than her. My parents thought that if she could not get into a reputable university, at least she would have a vocation.

My sister will graduate from university later this year, but the high school experience still troubles her. She recalls her experience as "stressful." Not only was she stressed about her academic work, but also about her inability to explain her mental state to parents and teachers. She could not explain to them what she felt about the various life changes that happened during those years.

There is a lack of mental health infrastructure in Vietnam, particularly for school students. This results in a lack of awareness about many different mental health problems that affect our youth. Vietnamese parents, educators and students do not have sufficient vocabulary to describe and to discuss these issues among themselves to support the youth.

Without proper understanding of different mental health issues among parents and educators, we inadvertently shift the responsibility of explaining troubling socio-psychological issues to those most vulnerable to them.

In the context of a changing society and economy, in order to get a better job, parents often emphasize to their children that they have to get into better schools and perform better academically. This escalating educational pressure is even higher in urban centers. Parents and schools often collectively ignore the students' emotional and mental health. With increasing pressure to be "successful," students need more support within the academic structure to address the anxieties resulting from high expectations and the pressure generated by their families in particular and society in general.

The perils of the dominant paradigm, where it is drummed into everyone including students that they have to get into good schools in order to excel in life, are not well recognized. This is especially so in urban areas where social inequality is worsening.

Students in large cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang face ever mounting pressure to get good grades, to study harder, and to take extra tutoring lessons to get into better schools in order to acquire the coveted social mobility.

Parents, advertently and otherwise, transmit their social mobility notions to their children. They think this is necessary to succeed in a fiercely competitive world. The notion that students can figure their future out on their own is a thing of the past.

Concerted cultivation

Education sociologist Annette Lareau has coined the term "concerted cultivation" to describe how middle class parents and working class parents differ in their parenting styles. In her research, she finds that middle-class parents and education institutions often share similar cultural ways of organizing activities. For example, middle class parents are more involved in coordinating their children's extracurricular activities and cultivating habits such as time management to help their children excel in school. In contrast, working class parents let their children play, and are less involved in their children's homework and extracurricular activities.

As Vietnam becomes a more developed society, more urban families have adopted the concerted cultivation parenting philosophy of being more involved in their children's school activities. They also face more pressure of providing social mobility for their children, who are boxed into established, set ways of excelling in schools such as taking extra private lessons, participating in defined extra-curricular activities such as singing, English speaking contests and so on. They see children participating in these activities as evidence of good, responsible parenting.

One extreme version of concerted cultivation is the idea of "tiger mom," or strict parenting that pushes children to achieve high levels of academic achievements through discipline and fear. This parenting style is popular in Vietnam.

However, one aspect of schooling and parenting that is systematically lacking in Vietnamese culture is attention paid to the students' socio-emotional and mental well-being.

In one conversation I had with an 11th grader at a highly prestigious high school in Hanoi, he told me that he wanted to study psychology in college because his friends often showed signs of melancholy. While he could not explain further what he meant by "melancholy" or "psychology," he understood that there's a problem.

The anecdote is telling. Vietnamese youth are able to discern what is missing in their daily discourse – healthy discussions about mental health – but they are not equipped for it.

Few parents are equipped with lessons in behavioral psychology or child psychology to appropriately deal with teenagers who might be going through significant developmental changes that are exacerbated by academic and social pressures. Educators are not necessarily expert psychologists, either. Few schools have mental counselors to provide professional advice to parents, students and teachers.

The need to have mental health counselors becomes particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 2020-2021 academic year, I worked with a team of urban education researchers at City University of New York to investigate what New York City parents think about how schools have dealt with Covid-19. We found that 91 percent of the parents felt there should be increased mental health support for children due to social isolation from Covid. Based on such a finding, the research team recommended to policymakers that "schools need proper funding and resources to meet students' socio-emotional needs. This investment is crucial to ensuring their success and ability to overcome trauma and challenges they have faced and will continue to face in the coming year."

In Vietnam, students and their families have also faced similar trauma and uncertainties when the number of Covid-19 cases surged suddenly. Lockdown measures, remote schooling and the feeling of isolation as well as disorientation from many unusual deaths would have also affected students' mental well-being. Yet this aspect of the pandemic is not much discussed or debated.

During this difficult time of Covid-19, parents, students, educators should be paying more attention to students' mental well-being. They can start with small steps like learning about mental health themselves and finding out how a therapist or counselor could help their children understand what they are going through during this disorienting time. The school system should start to incorporate mental health services and allocate adequate resources for it.

Eventually, this should lead to having a permanent counselor at the school for students to access; or the school can also tap community-based resources to provide needed mental health services for students and staff.

*Nga Than is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, City University of New York - The Graduate Center. The opinions expressed are her own.

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