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Thursday 18 April 2019
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Commentary

Fatness is only part of it

The fat-shaming issue that has been raging in all areas of the media is not just about a self-admitted overweight man bullying a self-admitted fat woman.

The underlying issues include how physical size might relate to one’s mental state, and the unhealthy nature of human interaction in our society. It is also about how we got to be so, and that consideration should lead to discussions about how we could change the status quo.

The thuggish chastisement of someone who may be vulnerable by a former health minister is just another example of the roughness that is common in our dealings with one another. Bullying is only a milder version of both the casual violence and extreme violence that are prevalent in TT.

This behaviour doesn’t just happen upon us in adulthood; rather it starts in childhood and is learned at home and from our peers at school. Unfortunately, either too little research has gone into analysing this phenomenon, too little time put into formulating policy or too few resources allocated to implementing it. TT is not alone in this, but some countries have recognised the problem and are ahead of us in fixing it.

In the UK, for example, the authorities know that ten per cent of children and young people aged five-16 have a clinically diagnosable mental problem and that by age 14, 50 per cent of mental health problems manifest themselves. This often takes the form of violent behaviour, self-harming and poor social skills; many suffer from neural deficiencies that prevent them learning, which may go unrecognised. It is so critical that the UK government last year announced that mental-health education would become compulsory for all primary schools in September 2020, with nearly TT$1 billion being earmarked for mental-health awareness training for all teachers.

The National Children’s Bureau is pushing for a “whole-school” approach because it will take more than teachers to improve mental health in schools; it requires all school staff and support bodies to be part of the project. New research shows the benefit of this holistic approach. Interestingly, “the well-being” of students is what is being discussed, and this includes a combination of physical activity and personal development.

Childhood obesity levels are increasing everywhere and there is a proven correlation between a lower economic socioeconomic position in childhood with obesity and a higher body mass index in adulthood. So actively focusing on nutrition education for all children is as important as teaching them how to develop self-worth.

Last week, members of the Ministry of Education appeared before the Public Administration and Appropriation Committee. A lot of focus went on the 161 unfinished schools that will cost $5 billion to complete, but with an allocation of only $297 million. Overall, money cannot be that short, though, as education was given a generous allocation in the last national budget, but it is clear from reports by the acting permanent secretary Kurt Meyer that a lot is wrong in the management of affairs in that ministry because of the inadequate structures to administer the vast array of competing responsibilities.

Chief Education Officer Harrilal Seecharan talked about the school dropout rate of two per cent, the dizzying 100 vacancies for support staff in Student Support Services, which he could not fill, and of the difficulty of ensuring that this staff was properly utilised.

These are important challenges for us to be aware of, especially since Seecharan informed the committee that many teachers do no feel it is their job to support children with special educational needs. Rightly, he emphasised the need for the training of all teachers. Given the acute problem in our schools and the revising of school policies in Britain, and probably elsewhere, based on research, we need to rethink our own education policies.

In the extensive interaction of the Bocas Lit Fest and the 2Cents Movement with schools over the last six to eight years, through our targeted programmes with students and teachers, we have become very aware of the extent to which many children need assistance to realise their potential: they lack family support; some work and attend school, care for themselves, are poorly nourished, lack shelter and come from abusive homes. They may also have mental-health issues. These factors disadvantage them, resulting in a growing inequality in our society.

Young people understand disadvantage and privilege. It depresses them. It provokes anger and hopelessness. Children enduring such circumstances could easily fail to develop balanced relationships, have the ability to solve problems, lack intellectual ability or even a sense of right from wrong.

Clearly, our Ministry of Education is overwhelmed. If we had a less state-governed society economy and a better developed private sector, the delivery of student support services could be outsourced. Check out Evolve’s HERO programme https://www.evolvesi.com/project-hero/ and see what’s possible.

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