A large number of counseling offices in Vietnamese grade schools are primarily used as an alternative resting area, or a quiet area for inspection of students’ misbehavior.
The mental well-being of Vietnamese K-12 students has become a heated issue following consecutive cases of teenage suicides.
The students within this age group face serious psychological matters, including anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders and depression.
Rampant mental health issues
As the 2022-23 academic school year began in September, an official request from the Ministry of Education and Training was sent to schools across the country, asking them to increase the quality of counseling services for high school students.
Despite the establishment of a dedicated counselor’s office, the number of actual visits was next to zero.
Some students were even unaware of the offices’ existence.
Thirty out of 50 Hanoian students reported having no idea where the counselor’s office was located in their school.
Those who were aware of this service did not list the place as their number one solution to their psychological problems.
To deal with their own issues, students take refuge in reading, drawing, songs, games, or crying out loud by themselves.
Some went on pleasure trips while others switched to online chatting sites.
A number of students resorted to alcoholic drinks or punching bags.
Some found cursing in private spaces an effective way to let off steam.
According to Dr. Trinh Thi Bich Huyen – from the Institute of Mental Health under Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, one of the major culprits behind students’ mental problems is stress, be it from their own life, school work or familial and other relationships.
A female patient was admitted to this institute recently due to her inability to blend in with new classmates who were from a different cultural background.
This Saigonese student who moved to Hanoi regularly came under stress and exhibited signs of self harm.
She once cut her arm with a paper knife in the classroom.
This behavior persisted, leaving scars on her arms, thighs and other bodily parts.
“I don’t want to die. I just cut myself to feel less tense,” she said to her doctor.
Synchronous measures for higher effectiveness
“If there’s a counselor’s office, please let me know. I spent four years in this school and I had no idea there was such a place,” said N.Q.H., a 14-year-old student.
Most of the sample of the aforementioned survey hoped that all of their students in their schools could be informed of the counseling service available.
Based on the analysis of Associated Professor Dr. Tran Thanh Nam – a clinical children and adolescent psychologist, the counselor’s office in high schools is an ineffective idea.
Nam said that the guidelines for counseling were dispatched to Vietnam’s public schools by the Ministry of Education and Training in 2017.
However, he acknowledged that this solution was not effective even though a counseling office was established in a large number of schools.
“Some students dread visiting this place fearing jeers from their peers. They don’t want to be labeled ‘crazy’ in school,” he explained.
“Therefore the counselor’s office is basically deserted.”
“Only with funding, support from non-governmental organizations, and qualified part-time counselors can schools maintain this service.”
Nam quoted research showing 80 percent of children suffered mental health issues following prolonged social distancing policy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most schools, however, fail to establish workable guidelines on children’s mental counseling.
Instead, the emphasis remains children's academic progress.
“Even when children confide their anxiety in parents and teachers, they get blamed for being lazy and misbehaving,” said Nam.
“This hurts the children even more.”
The psychologist believes that enhanced mental wellbeing in K-12 students stem from public awareness of such issues, active engagement of trained professionals and the deployment of necessary resources.
At the same time, schools ought to host relevant workshops for teachers and parents.
The counseling office needs sufficient funding for daily operation and it should be placed at the hands of qualified individuals.
Another necessity is a refined procedure for mental counseling, diagnosing and filtering potential patients.
Part of this is setting up an anti-bullying room.
Nam emphasized the need for synchronized measures, sufficient funding and the sustainable operation of school mental health counseling.
Huyen, also from the Institute of Mental Health, stressed the collaboration between families and schools to ensure early diagnosis of potential health issues before these have developed beyond easy treatment.
“I hope that students find joy in their everyday experiences at school, and their after-class time at home will be filled with joy as well,” she said.
“The family should be an encouraging environment that promotes parent-child conversations.”
A three-tier mental health counseling model
The current mental health support model at Nguyen Binh Khiem High School in Cau Giay District, Hanoi, is one of the outstanding samples for this movement.
According to Bui Bich Lien, a school age psychologist, this school based their idea on the model of the American Psychological Association.
It includes three tiers, the first one of which caters for 80 percent of students with basic mental support needs.
The second level of counseling is for the next 15 percent who are in danger of a mental breakdown and need direct support, and the last 5 percent of students who suffer greater risks with clear symptoms can access the last tier.
“Besides educating the students, we educate parents and teachers as well through small-scale workshops, forums and talk shows,” said Lien.
“The best agent for this movement is the teacher in charge of the classes.”
This school currently evaluates students’ happiness index by progression over academic years through self-assessment forms based on their own reflections.
Initiatives from students
The 50 students who participated in the survey proposed a few initiatives.
They believed counseling will be most effective when no third party is involved in the sessions between the patient in need and the counselor, which ensures confidentiality.
They also proposed anonymous letter boxes located around the schools, talk shows and extracurricular lessons on mental health.