World Mental Health Day 2021: Students projects bring hope and promise | Aga Khan Academies

World Mental Health Day 2021: Students projects bring hope and promise

10 October 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the uncertainty and instability that has accompanied the last 18 months, has placed an extraordinary burden on mental health worldwide. As a Counsellor at the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad, I have witnessed increases in stress (across students and staff), growing isolation and mountains of grief. We grieve not only for lost loved ones, but also for a world which many of us fear might never be the same again. 

And yet, as I reflect on this time, it is with awe and hope, not despair. This hope comes from the young leaders I have had the privilege to get to know and serve over these last 3 years. Every year our Academy sees countless students tackling mental health issues as part of their MYP Personal Projects and DP CAS endeavours. The courage and dedication these students show towards widening access to healthcare in their communities and improving awareness of mental health issues is deeply heartening.

For me,COVID-19 has highlighted how important it is to have a brimming toolbox of diverse coping mechanisms. When we can’t go outside in nature, can’t meet our friends, we need alternative ways of boosting our well-being. Enter Grade 10 student Ruth Shastry, who this year is creating a stress-relieving colouring book for her MYP 5 Personal Project. Ruth’s product is informed by Angela Wright’s colour affect theory and uses fractal patterns, which echo natural forms and have a calming effect on the viewer. Asked what inspired this creation, Ruth noted the “massive toll” the pandemic had taken on mental health and the difficulty of “being trapped within four walls, all day”. Like many of our students, Ruth’s product grew from a desire to help others, specifically to help others “take mental breaks and release built-up stress: like a vent on a cooker pressure”.

We see similar projects amongst our DP students. For example, last year Imra Dawoodani (now in DP2), set up the Instagram page manage_anxiety. Imra’s posts sought to raise awareness around anxiety and provide peers with important tools for well-being: tips on baking, physical exercise, mindfulness and journaling to name but a few. When speaking about her motivation for this campaign, Imra noted how it started with an exploration, first and foremost of the self. This exploration grew into a realisation that so many people around her were battling something or other.

“I wanted to work on the page to reach out to people, to do my bit, and also because the project was a source of reminding myself of the things that matter most ‘love for self’ and ‘respect for others’”.

Reflecting on what she learnt, Imra shared the insight that “too much positivity is also mentally toxic”, that mental health “isn’t about fitting in with others, it’s about creating your own space in your own life”. Like Imra, aspiring psychologist Sujith Bandaru of DP1, used digital technologies to help and inform his peers last year, by producing a podcast: Inside the Adolescent Mind. Applying insights gained from neuroscience and developmental psychology, Sujith explored the rollercoaster that is adolescence, as a way to (in his words) “help himself and others”.

These projects give me hope that we can scale up mental health services around the world, making quality care a reality for all. With today’s youth as empowered and informed as our students, they will be the change.

Written by Dr. Isabelle Didsbury, Personal Counsellor at the Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad