Mental barriers & task-shifting education

Last night while teaching a class I solicited thoughts on obstacles to applying what was being taught. It was a complex topic of artificial intelligence and programming in financial markets, so I expected ideas like “overwhelmed” “laziness” “looking for an easier way”. But interestingly one mentioned what I consider an under-discussed elephant in the (class) room: mental health issues. At best, for all our tech glitz, savvy methods, persuasive words and students’ motivation, ambition and work-ethic… how often do we not achieve sufficient learning lift-off because emotional or mental problems obstruct the way?

Image Psychiatrist Vikram Patel, Professor of International Mental Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, describes a process of task-shifting mental health in lower income countries – where often everyday people are not finding relief from debilitating depression and postpartum, anxiety, and so on. Task-shifting is A process of task delegation from doctors to nurses; and from nurses to other less specialized lay health workers. Task shifting improves healthcare coverage by making more efficient use of the human resources. (WHO, Jan 2008). Where mental health workers and medicine are scarce, he describes shifting tasks to lay people who are trained for specific purposes, reducing cost and increasing accessibility. This has improved the rate of mental health interventions in various areas around the world. His service delivery model is called SUNDAR (Hindi for “attractive”):

Simplify the message/communication
UNpack the treatment/service
Deliver it where people are
Affordable and available human resources
Reallocate specialists to train and supervise

Imagine empowering local people – assisted by technology and social communication – to understand core mental health issues, learn the basics of critical treatment strategies and deliver the solutions to their neighbors, while the rare doctor or professional is freed to oversee and train the operation.

How could this delivery model be applied to education with a novel twist on MOOCs and other trends we are observing? (apropos for a year now I myself have yet to finish a Coursera/other MOOC because I am busy, lazy … and at times my coping skills are overwhelmed with something or another that’s serious) And better, could we kill two birds with one stone by incorporating simple social solutions to psychological issues impeding learning?

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