Health and well-being are more than just a matter of physical health. Good mental health is to the foundation of a person's overall well-being, yet it is often overlooked. This is certainly true in Thailand, where this issue is a growing concern, particularly among children and adolescents.
According to an analysis by UNICEF in 2021, which uses data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, mental health disorders are becoming increasingly common, with around 1 in 7 adolescents aged 13-17 experiencing a mental health issue globally. The number is even higher in Thailand: according to a survey conducted by UNICEF and its partners in Thailand during April 2020, 7 out of 10 children and young adults reported that the pandemic was negatively impacting their mental wellness, leading to feelings of stress, worry, and anxiety. The survey also revealed that the uncertainty of their family's financial status is the respondents' primary concern, hindering their ability to learn, grow, and thrive.
One place where stress and anxiety are particularly high is in schools, and teachers are faced with the challenge of identifying and supporting students who are struggling with these problems in time to help. Tragically, worst case scenarios do happen, such as suicide, which is currently the third leading cause of death among adolescents in the country. According to the 2021 Global School-based Student Health Survey, 17.6 per cent of adolescents aged 13–17 had recently seriously considered suicide.
Thanasak Yordmeung, a teacher from Wat Nhong Moo Tai School in Saraburi province, had to face this particular problem. He noticed that a student in his class was quiet and spent a lot of time by himself playing mobile games. That was when he invited him to sit with teachers during lunch break.
“One day he came to me and said he wanted to get away and end his life” said Thanasak, who later found out that his student had a serious argument with his grandmother after she accused him of stealing her money to top up his mobile game. This was denied by the student and created tremendous stress for him.
After knowing his student for some time, Thanasak felt that he was telling the truth. However, Thanasak concluded that the root causes of conflict between both sides came from a lack of trust and a generational gap. Thanasak handled the situation calmly by listening to the student attentively and helped solve the problem by visiting his home, mediating and suggesting a new agreement: that the boy would limit mobile game use, while his grandmother would listen more before jumping to conclusions.
Not all students are as fortunate to have someone be there for them when needed like this. It can be especially difficult for teachers who are not familiar with how to encourage self-positivity among their students and may not know how to provide appropriate support. This creates a pressing need for schools to prioritise building conducive environments, providing adequate resources and development opportunities for teachers, and improving effective approaches to address stress and anxiety among students.
UNICEF recognises the importance of this alarming issue, and has partnered with Central Tham – one of the largest retail businesses in Thailand - on a Creating Shared Value initiative, which focuses on addressing social and environmental issues while also creating economic value, involving a wide range of private and public sector actors. This particular project focused on providing practical ways for teachers to be better equipped with ideas they can promote self-positivity in the classroom.
“The challenge around mental wellness is a growing concern that prevents children from fully achieving their ability to learn and grow”, said Suthasinee Subhasirisin, the General Manager of Sustainable Education Development from Central Tham. “We believe teachers are the catalysts for change in the lives of their students. By empowering a teacher with practical ways to promote self-positivity among themselves and their students, we may help hundreds of children who are dealing with stress and anxiety, and ultimately the community.”
Through conversations with teachers about stress at their schools, UNICEF and Central Tham adapted techniques for creating safe spaces from UNICEF’s Every Day is Mind Day campaign toolkit, developed by UNICEF and the Department of Mental Health. The techniques were used as part of the first piloting activity entitled “Building a Safe Space for Teachers” at Saraburi Vocational Education College in Saraburi province. The activity aimed to equip teachers with skills for creating a safer environment for students to speak and share their concerns without judgement, and to learn ways to deal with emotions when they need to support students with stress.
Forty teachers from 11 schools in Saraburi province attended this initiative. It began with trust-building and setting ground rules, which were crucial in creating a safe learning environment. Then, teachers discovered ways to observe and understand emotions, and developed listening skills and explored language choices. Teachers also learned how to improve self-awareness to prepare their students for online spaces. The activity ended with reflection and how people can show gratitude and appreciation to each other.
‘Awakening’ was the title of one activity led by Poonsri Montripanich, a school director at Wat Huay Bong in Saraburi province. “The activity covers several techniques that most teachers are already familiar with from their day-to-day work but repackaging those into simple activities to help teachers apply them with their own classrooms. Learning to listen was very helpful, and made the whole thing feel less overwhelming,” said Poonsri.
In the past few years, UNICEF has been working more broadly with the government, civil society, private sector, and young people in Thailand to promote mental wellness and access to mental health resources and services.
I Am UNICEF and Central Tham are currently piloting this activity in four provinces; Saraburi in Central Thailand, Chiangmai in Northern Thailand, Trang in Southern Thailand, and Udonthani in Northeastern Thailand, but the final model of activities will be shared with more schools under CONNEXT ED Network. “The collaboration between UNICEF and Central Tham shows the potential of cross-sector collaboration to promote practical ways for teachers to build conducive environments encouraging self-positivity for children. It starts with small steps, but has the long-term goal of achieving self-sustainability, making a lasting difference in the communities it serves,” said Nipattra Wilkes, a Communication Officer - Volunteer Engagement.