Psychology in the education system

Psychology in the education system

I was 10 years old when my first crush died. In an instant, my carefree innocent life was never the same. After experiencing trauma in my childhood and going through years of on-and-off grief, I discovered that writing about my thoughts helped me to better understand what I was feeling, and consequently, to process my grief. My crush was slightly older than I was. Consequently, we had very few interactions since we didn’t share any classes or extracurricular activities. It was a regular innocent childhood crush and I’m pretty sure it would not have amounted to anything. But when I learnt of the car crash and his passing, I was violently thrust into a deep well of grief. I was a nervous wreck. My emotions overwhelmed me, and I fumbled and blundered trying to deal with them.

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The pandemic last year left me unemployed and with a lot of time to explore my mind. Nearly 15 years later, as a young adult woman, I can now see the coping mechanisms I developed to deal with my grief and how they persisted into my adulthood. Growing up I had a morbid fascination with death, which led me to want to become a doctor — I can now confirm after dropping out of med school two years into it, that I in fact do not want to be a doctor.

I was terribly afraid of change, especially the one that comes with some form of uncertainty — like changing schools or meeting new people. I struggled (and still do) with commitment and opening up to even my closest family and friends.

The most unfortunate part was because I did not have the tools to deal with grief, I was unable to process this trauma in a healthy way. In our society, we’re not educated on the workings of our minds, and so I had absolutely no idea what was going on with me. I didn’t know how to start asking for help and regardless, I don’t think my parents and teachers would have known what to do; they were not equipped with the skills and knowledge either. This lack of education might be one of the biggest failings of our society.

It’s remarkable to me that we spend so much time and effort ensuring that children can count to a million or write cursive. Yet the study of our own minds — how to process and make sense of our feelings, thoughts, actions, and detrimental behaviour patterns — is not even part of the curriculum in mainstream education. Sadly, these skills are not acquired intrinsically just because one becomes an adult. Further, in our society, feelings and emotions are frequently given a negative connotation; they are viewed as outbursts experienced by people who don’t have control over their own minds.

As a result, many children take the leap into adulthood not even being aware of why they think and act the way they do, and how any childhood trauma they faced might have shaped their life’s trajectory, as I recognize that my trauma shaped me. Unfortunately, children who have faced traumatic experiences usually end up with poorer school performance, and their interpersonal relationships as well as their growth and development are negatively impacted. They have also been shown to exhibit higher rates of depression, anxiety, distorted cognition and personality deficits as adults. With all these glaringly negative effects that extend into adulthood, stress and trauma should be appropriately addressed instead of waiting for children to “get over it” in adulthood. Most likely, they will only develop unhealthy coping mechanisms if left to deal with it themselves, just as I did.

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Where is the educational system failing?

When I was in school, there were no classes or lessons that taught students about their emotional and mental health. Fortunately in the UK, such a programme exists — it is the personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, which covers emotional health and wellbeing in addition to physical wellness. While the programme has been in existence for two decades now, it is only in 2020 that it was incorporated into part of the mandatory curriculum. To me, this highlights that the current adult population in the UK, in all likelihood, has not taken PSHE or psychology as part of their learning subjects when they were in school. It is therefore unlikely that they are equipped to handle their own mental wellbeing, let alone pass those skills onto the younger generation. According to the Office for National Statistics, the death rate by suicide across England rose by 21% between 2009 and 2019. And while there can be many contributing factors to suicide, the top 10 most common themes among people who died by suicide include abuse and neglect, bereavement, bullying, and social isolation. These are all signs of unaddressed stress and/or trauma.

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What can be done right now?

In my opinion, schools across the globe should redesign their psychology programmes with cutting-edge expert knowledge that comprehensively covers psychology in practical terms. Teachers should also undergo rigorous training prior to engaging with children on these topics, as they themselves most likely did not acquire the necessary education either. The programmes could discuss the various types of emotions, how to process emotions, how to de-stress during stressful periods, as well as a list of people and bodies to reach out to in the case of overwhelming distress. I believe that in guiding children to better understand themselves and others, we can help them to better cope with life’s stresses so that they do not feel as alone and confused as I did.