Ree-Anna Robinson, 20, has been working with UNICEF Jamaica to provide a youth perspective on education and mental health advocacy for students in Jamaica. Ree-Anna has helped to lead the “Reimagine Education” initiative, addressing the Transforming Education Summit in New York City on behalf of Jamaican students and with U-Report, guided the development of the "U-Matter" mental health chatline. Recently she spoke to actress Saara Chaudry for the UNICEF Canada podcast.
Something in Jamaica that we are missing in our education system is that it is supposed to be fuelling our curiosity and talents. There is too much emphasis being placed on exam-based results and not enough on looking into the individual growth of students. We are not looking at who they want to be, or the impact that they want to leave on this society.
Instead we are focused on just ensuring that they are sent through the system with many being unsuccessful and this is killing many of their dreams and aspirations.
After the primary level, we stream our students into traditional and non-traditional schools – the higher and lower end of the spectrum – and it really shouldn’t be this way. Tradition is something we may never be able to run away from in Jamaica, but this should not be what determines quality education.
We need to break barriers to education
Our socio-economic barriers to education really stifle our dreams, especially at the tertiary level, where under 30 per cent of the young people in Jamaica actually make it through to university, with a prominent issue being funding of tuition. Further adding to this issue,there are those who are enrolled but may not be able to study what they truly wish to. This highlights the limited quality and scope of the opportunities to which many young people will end up having access to, as lack of vision associated with negative self-perception, coupled with lack of skills training or formal education will limit the quality of opportunities for employment and self-actualization.
Therefore, often as youth, we won’t be led to think we can make it past the structure in our society that places a lid on us because of where we come from and what we don’t have.
In non-traditional schools, we find that more technical skills are taught. What that says to the person is that those types of skills are for people who can’t go into traditional education and that it’s for the ‘lower end’. We are taught that those are the persons whose dreams are really not worth it so they just have to stick with that. This even limits people who want to learn and master vocational skills. It’s multifaceted in terms of barriers, and what needs to be done.
Mental health issues need to be addressed
In Jamaica, we have been good at highlighting basic needs which schools must provide such as food security through feeding programmes. It is easier for us to identify these but we do not pay enough attention to the mental health of students and how to adequately identify and support them until it is much too late.
My mental health advocacy was personal at first because it started during the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, every day was hard and each day got harder while school was closed. Within our communities in Jamaica, school is so much more than academics. School is where some young people get their only meal for the day. School is where students get the only psychosocial support available to them.
Mental health was important to me but it was superficial because even though we talk about depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, it never really becomes real until it hits home. Not until it ends up at your doorstep. This is what I experienced during the pandemic, and I want to see more of that awakening happening within our education system.
What policy makers can do
In addressing structural issues in the education system, I want a safer school environment. I want increased access to mental health services, resources, normalising conversations through holistic sensitisation of all stakeholders who interact with young people. It can’t be left to teachers or guidance counsellors alone, especially when (on average) there are only three guidance counsellors to 1,700 high school students.
We have to ensure that every single stakeholder is sensitized to what these struggles look like, including students, so that each one can help themselves and their peers. We need increased access to mental health services and resources and a cross-sectoral policy that promotes and protects the mental wellness of all our people. If we say the words ‘serious about mental health’, then we need to take serious actions, too. That’s what I want to see for myself and within my country.
I really hope that we will be able to remove some of the ‘lids’ that limit how far we can go, based on where we are from, classicism and being “stuck in a box.”
What’s UNICEF doing?
UNICEF Jamaica is working with young people to bring attention to the need for improved mental health support and care for children and adolescents. One of our critical initiatives is the U-Matter Chatline. It is provided free by UNICEF’s U-Report messaging service for youth, connecting users aged 16-24 years to chat anonymously and confidentially with trained counsellors. To access help, young people are encouraged to message the word SUPPORT to 876-838-4897 on WhatsApp or with free SMS for Flow customers; or @ureportjamaica on Instagram and Facebook Messenger. Together with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, U-Matter chatline has provided more than 2,000 sessions with trained counsellors.
We are also working with education partners to not only bring attention to the need for improved mental health support and care for children and adolescents, but to provide usable and useful strategies to do so. These include support for the development of courses like Return to Happiness, the roll out of the student-centred, emotionally supportive School-Wide Positive Behaviour Intervention and Support (SWPBIS) framework, the National College for Educational Leadership’s (NCEL)’s Child Friendly Schools course (CFS) and its Leadership for Safer Schools (LSS) Programme.