Equipping teachers to support displaced students psychologically

Students in one of Herat province’s remote Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) regions are learning life skills and receiving group and individual counseling and trauma services aimed at improving their lives, well-being, health and clarity of mind.

The school, 40 km from Herat city, serves 450 boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 18 divided into two shifts; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Maka, 34, and Abdul, 35, have taught at the school for many years. Recently, they had the opportunity to participate in the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support training conducted by World Vision Afghanistan (WVA) as part of the Emergency Health & Protection Project, funded by Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

The training has helped school principals and teachers in areas with large populations of displaced people identify mental health issues and psychosocial needs in students. The Mental Health and Psychosocial Support training taught participants the techniques of basic counseling for children as well as how to support children's resilience and life skills. Building resilience helps children manage stress and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty and enables them to adapt to the challenges they face.

Thanks to the training, teachers are able to identify symptoms of trauma, which helps them address and prevent the often irreversible impacts of trauma that can affect students into adulthood.

“Before, I only listened to the students speaking [about their] problems"

“Before, I only listened to the students speaking [about their] problems without providing any psychosocial support for them because I didn’t know what I should do or say when a student had an emotional well-being issue or needed support,” says Maka.  She adds that before the training she could only advise students based on experience, not on her knowledge of issues or counselling approaches.

Displaced families and children in Herat were forced to leave their provinces because of ongoing conflict and economic issues. They struggle with all manners of disruptive life events: death and separation from their homes, a sense of loss, the devastating effects of poverty, conflict, abuse and family violence. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that among internally displaced people in Herat, 68 per cent of households had unmet psychosocial needs. War Child UK’s 2014 report revealed that 42 per cent of all calls placed to the child help line were related to psychological and mental health problems.

“He always fought with his classmates and bit them."

Maka relates her experience with a troubled student in her level seven class, Jawid: “He always fought with his classmates and bit them. He had an aggressive attitude with me and other teachers. All of us were tired of him. We thought he [was crazy]. I didn’t know what I should do.”

Following the training, Maka befriended Jawid and tried to get to the bottom of his bad behaviour. Through private counselling sessions, she discovered how intelligent the boy was. “His violent behaviour took root in the home…Jawid’s parents punished him physically  so he took it out on others,” she explains.

Maka invited Jawid’s mother to school to find a solution together. She put the counselling techniques she had learned from the trainings to use and convinced Jawid’s mother to use an alternative to corporal punishment.

Maka says that during their first session Jawid’s mother laughed at her suggestions. “[She told me], ‘This is a normal way to treat children. It is the way we have grown up.’ Her response didn’t surprise me because most of the parents have few role models and rely on their own childhood experiences for raising their own children" she said.

“I remember that in the first group counselling with students' mothers, only..."

“I remember that in the first group counselling with students' mothers, only eight of them participated, but in the next session 40 mothers attended,” says Maka, who also trained other teachers in her school.  They now have regular private and group counselling sessions for children and their parents.

Some of the mental health cases that teachers encounter are beyond their knowledge and skill levels, such as epilepsy and severe depression. These more extreme cases are referred either to official World Vision counsellors or to a mental health clinic.

“When she [interacted with] teachers it was as if she was fighting."

Maka recalls another of her students in a level 10 class, Halima, who suffered from severe depression. She had attempted suicide on three separate occasions, one time going so far as to try to burn her house down. “In class she was silent and didn’t talk to anyone,” remembers Maka. “When she [interacted with] teachers it was as if she was fighting. None of her teachers dared to ask her why she didn’t do her homework. After the counselling, we found out that Halima didn’t like her family because they were poor. She fought with her father and asked him, ‘why aren’t you an engineer or a doctor?’" 

The teachers introduced Halima to World Vision counsellors who referred her to a mental health clinic where she spent a few weeks recovering and was administered medication. “I spoke with her last week,” Maka says, “she is getting better and looks fresher. She told me that she is interested in finishing high school and becoming a teacher.”

The Mental Health & Psychosocial Support training has not only inspired and motivated students and their families to organise and tackle issues, it has also led teachers to change some of their negative teaching methods, eliminating elements such as corporal punishment.

 "My stick was famous among [students]."

“I punished students with either a ruler or stick when they did something wrong,” remembers Abdul, the other teacher who was interviewed. “Sometimes I gave a lot of homework to naughty students. I wasn’t a good teacher… My stick was famous among [students]. They were afraid of me. Through the training, I have learned how to [deal with problem] students and how to punish or encourage children in the class.”

The trainings have helped Abdul and other participants learn how to identify students with mental health issues. “Such students need more attention in the class. They should be encouraged to [participate] more in class activities to increase their self-confidence.”

“I have participated in a lot of trainings, [but] this one..."

“It was a very good training” says Abdul. “I have participated in a lot of trainings, [but] this one was different from the others… All the topics discussed were a step toward the emotional well-being of children and adolescents. It is good that someone is taking care of Afghan children. This generation of children will soon be leading Afghanistan. They need support as most of them have an untold tragic story to tell,” explains Abdul.

Thanks to funding from the Global Affairs Canada, the stories of children like Jawid and Halima have a chance to the find the audience they deserve.