Something is rapidly fracturing in the mental health of our children, teachers, and other staff members in our schools which has been brought forcefully to the fore with the deaths – reportedly by suicide – of at least three students in different schools across the country this September.
One was a 17-year-old high school girl in Nakuru County after she was ordered to shave off her hair. Then there was a 14-year-old primary school pupil in Kericho County who died by suicide after an argument with his teacher for “changing his desk with another student’s” without permission and for which his father said he was also severely beaten.
The third was a 17-year-old student in Kajiado County, who was said to have “thrown herself” into a septic tank without reasons that triggered the action.
In mid-September still in Kitale, three high school girls were scalded with hot water by the school cook –apparently after asking for hot water to prepare milk-free drinks. The girls sustained burns while the cook went into hiding.
Something is awfully wrong when children feel pushed to the wall, that they perceive their only way out is ending it all to stop the physical or mental injuries they are encountering.
It does not help that the environment in many schools is one that breeds fear and terror as it brooks no dissent, no questioning, and is intolerant – nay ruthless – about individual expression.
There are serious constraints on school infrastructure. Dormitories are crammed with students almost to the rafters (triple-decker beds being the norm in a number of schools); and classrooms packed resulting in unhealthy competition for space, say in use of the bathrooms.
In some schools, students arise before dawn, and sleep an hour or so to midnight in the name of ‘preps’. Research showing that 13-18-year-olds need about eight-10 hours of sleep per 24-hour cycle does not seem to have made any impact in schools, despite the consequences of having sleep-deprived teens including a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, poor mental health, poor decision-making, and problems with attention and memory.
Add to this sorry cauldron the poor diet (in quantity and quality), that many boarding schools serve and it is obvious we are staring at a health crisis.
One 2020 study by Serrem, et al., found that boarding schools in Kenya failed to meet the energy and nutrition needs of students – a vulnerable group reliant on schools for meals. Paucity in nutrition could adversely affect physical and mental well-being, and expose students to chronic lifestyle diseases in adulthood.
Teachers and non-teaching staff, too, seem to be grappling with finding the right balance when dealing with challenges.
In the suicide case in Nakuru, the girl and her colleagues were undoing each other’s hair on closing day. But on reporting to school 10 or so days later, the girl had not shaved off her hair, and school authorities continued insisting she and 13 other girls must shave off their hair.
What, pray, would inform this relentless pursuit of such a matter, and further, the imposition of such a disproportionate sanction?
Do teachers no longer understand the excitement of closing day and the anticipation of freedom and rest? It is heartbreaking to read the letter she wrote a day before she died, apologising for “being indiscipline[d] and misbehaving on closing day”, and for having “jeopardised the relations between you and me.”
Could a word of caution not have sufficed on that closing day, and all forgiven by the adults by the beginning of term?
We must put a stop to this seemingly endless cycle of suffering as many schools are currently fertile grounds for mental health disorders and other injuries.
The government need to adequately fund infrastructural development in schools and other attendant social amenities like sports facilities and libraries.
This is besides recruitment, training, deployment, remuneration and provision of professional advancement opportunities for teachers, counsellors, and other staffers.
We ought to recognise that children need our guidance, understanding, and a safe space in which to express themselves without condemnation and fear.