by Shahina Maqbool
Sixteen-year-old Saba has anything but fond memories of her schooldays. Studying in a private educational institution of Rawalpindi, she has been a victim of perpetual corporal punishment and mental abuse in the classroom, both at the hands of her teacher as well as classmates. Saba’s teacher has persistently been humiliating and thrashing her for her poor academic performance, little realising that her impaired learning ability has to do with what psychiatrists describe as ‘moderate mental retardation.’
Saba’s mental illness remained undiagnosed for 16 long and stressful years until the 9th grader was brought to a psychiatric facility in Islamabad in a state of unconsciousness. “She was having fits, which were a sign of extreme distress; was non-communicative, and would repeatedly fall unconscious,” Saba’s treating psychiatrist described. Her condition got aggravated four months ago when her teacher beat her up in the classroom and called her ‘mad,’ a remark that completely shattered her confidence. “Only this time, she couldn’t take the insult and collapsed in the classroom. Ever since that episode, her condition has deteriorated further,” recollected the patient’s mother, a resident of Rawalpindi.
When asked, the head of the department of psychiatry at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) Dr. Rizwan Taj defined ‘moderate mental retardation’ as a developmental disability marked by an intellectual functioning level that is well below ‘borderline mental retardation.’ The condition imposes significant limitations vis-a-vis acquisition of education and daily living skills.
“As adults, these individuals attain an intellectual level comparable to that of an average 4 to 7 year-old child. They have a relatively slow rate of learning and an extremely limited level of conceptualising,” Dr. Taj said. Physically too, such children appear clumsy and suffer from poor motor coordination. Although a distinct minority is hostile and aggressive, a majority possesses an affable personality.
Saba’s mental illness was not an overnight phenomenon. She experienced difficulty reciting the Quraan and learning her lessons. Yet, in spite of her poor academic performance, the school that she was studying in promoted her to the next class, year after year, with little vigilance being exercised on part of the teachers to determine why she was unable to keep pace with peers her age.
Saba’s case should serve as an eye-opener for the government, which has failed to exercise meaningful regulatory control over the management and functioning of private educational institutions. It should also alert parents to the manner in which they are fleeced by private schools, and have little to give in return. When asked, Dr. Taj said, it is difficult to believe that the teacher was unaware of Saba’s mental condition. “She pressurised the child unnecessarily. Beating up such a child is synonymous to flogging a dead horse,” he said.
The psychiatrist also questioned how Saba could have managed to reach grade 9 despite her intellectual disability. Indeed, the fact that she can barely write her name, and can only read some text-that too with much difficulty-is evidence enough to confirm that our private schools have turned into money-minting commercial ventures where the standard of teaching and learning is surely not commensurate with their exorbitant fee structure.
Adding insult to injury, poor and inadequate monitoring enables these institutions and their staff to get away with verbal and physical abuse that is now rare even in public sector educational institutions. Following a month of treatment involving behaviour therapy, use of anti-depressants, and family education, Saba’s condition has stabilised quite a bit but she is surely not, and never was, fit to pursue normal schooling. According to her treating psychiatrist, even though all the symptoms that she was hospitalised with have subsided, the scars of humiliation that she has been subjected to in school will take a long time to heal. Had she been lucky enough to have a vigilant teacher, Saba’s condition would have been diagnosed at a very initial stage.
Responding to a query, Dr. Taj shared that 10 to 20 per cent of the Pakistani children below 16 years of age are suffering from some mental illness. Poverty, multiple stresses, lack of educational and recreational outlets, use of drugs, large family size, poor inter-personal relationships, disintegration of family support system, pressure of education and inability to get good grades, career choices forced upon by parents, and love affairs in co-educational institutions are all contributors of emotional stress and mental illnesses among the youth.
Dr. Taj had no doubt that excessive use of mobile phones, Internet, and particularly the contemporary social media, is responsible for the rising social and moral decay that our societies are succumbing to today. He claimed having recommended to the Capital Administration and Development (CAD), the imposition of a complete ban on use of mobile phones in educational institutions, especially for students under 16 years of age, but there has been no response so far. “Parents and teachers have got to intervene and prevent their children from over-indulging,” the psychiatrist cautioned.
In conclusion, Dr. Taj criticised the media for irresponsible reporting of events, with little or no consideration attached to the long-term repercussions of such coverage. “There is a general pessimism among our youth because of unwarranted reporting of rising incidents of violence and suicide,” he pointed out.
Dr. Taj was of the view that when the media flashes breaking news of educational institutions set ablaze by protesting students, it is not doing any service to the nation. “Images of students taking their exams in a setting where cheating is rampant also inculcates negativity among the youth. Moreover, news of students committing suicide as a reaction to poor result also fans despondency. It is time, media displayed greater maturity,” he advised.
This article was written by Shahina Maqbool and originally published on thenews