However, my parents never talked about it or tried to seek proper treatment for it. Maybe they didn’t have the financial resources to do it, or maybe they didn’t know how much it would affect him.
The problem worsened when she arrived in high school. The stress of being a better than average high school student and getting into a good college was intense. Preparing for the university entrance exam, stressful for most students and parents, was even more so for my sister and my parents.
Sometimes I heard my mother and my sister get into a shouting match because they couldn’t understand each other. For many adults, my sister was not a well-behaved high school student. She defied her parents and didn’t listen to her teachers at school. From my sister’s point of view, no one understood her problems.
Luckily, she found solace and space to express herself in the art of makeup and pursued it alongside my parents’ approval. She spent her weekends going to weddings and balls to do her makeup, often for women much older than her. My parents thought that if she couldn’t get into a reputable university, at least she would have a vocation.
My sister will be graduating from college later this year, but the high school experience still troubles her. She remembers her experience as “stressful”. Not only was she stressed by her academic work, but also by her inability to explain her mental state to parents and teachers. She couldn’t explain to them how she felt about the various life changes that had taken place during those years.
There is a lack of mental health infrastructure in Vietnam, especially for students. The result is a lack of awareness of the many different mental health issues that affect our young people. Vietnamese parents, educators and students do not have enough vocabulary to describe and discuss these issues among themselves to support young people.
Without a good understanding of different mental health issues among parents and educators, we inadvertently shift the responsibility of explaining troubling socio-psychological issues to those most vulnerable.
In the context of a changing society and economy, in order to get a better job, parents often insist to their children that they must get into better schools and achieve better academic results. This growing educational pressure is even greater in urban centres. Parents and schools often collectively ignore the emotional and mental health of students. With increasing pressure to “succeed”, students need more support within the academic structure to deal with the anxieties resulting from high expectations and the pressure generated by their families in particular and society in general.
The perils of the dominant paradigm, where everyone, including students, is told that they must go to good schools to excel in life, are not well recognized. This is particularly the case in urban areas where social inequalities are worsening.
Students in big cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang face increasing pressure to get good grades, study harder and take additional tutoring courses to get into better schools to gain mobility coveted social.
Parents, inadvertently or not, pass on their notions of social mobility to their children. They believe this is necessary to succeed in a fiercely competitive world. The idea that students can determine their future for themselves is a thing of the past.
Educational sociologist Annette Lareau coined the term “concert culture” to describe how middle-class parents and working-class parents differ in their parenting styles. In her research, she finds that middle-class parents and educational institutions often share similar cultural ways of organizing activities. For example, middle-class parents are more involved in coordinating their children’s extracurricular activities and cultivate habits such as time management to help their children excel in school. In contrast, working-class parents let their children play and are less involved in their children’s homework and extracurricular activities.
As Vietnam becomes a more developed society, more and more urban families have embraced the concerted culture parenting philosophy of being more involved in their children’s school activities. They also face greater pressure to provide social mobility for their children, who are locked into set and established methods of excelling in schools, such as taking extra private lessons, participating in defined extracurricular activities such as singing, English speaking contests, etc. They see children who participate in these activities as proof of good responsible parenting.
An extreme version of concerted culture is the idea of “tiger mama,” or strict parenting that drives children to high levels of academic achievement through discipline and fear. This parenting style is popular in Vietnam.
However, one aspect of schooling and parenting that is consistently lacking in Vietnamese culture is attention to students’ socio-emotional and mental well-being.
In a conversation I had with an 11th grader at a very prestigious high school in Hanoi, he told me that he wanted to study psychology at university because his friends often showed signs of melancholy. Although he could not explain further what he meant by “melancholy” or “psychology”, he understood that there was a problem.
The anecdote is eloquent. Young Vietnamese are able to discern what is missing in their daily discourse – healthy discussions about mental health – but they are not equipped for it.
Few parents are equipped with behavioral psychology or child psychology courses to appropriately deal with adolescents who may be going through significant developmental changes that are exacerbated by academic and social pressures. Educators are not necessarily expert psychologists either. Few schools have psychological counselors to provide professional counseling to parents, students and teachers.
The need for mental health counselors becomes particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the 2020-2021 academic year, I worked with a team of urban education researchers at the City University of New York to investigate what New York parents think about how schools have handled the Covid-19. We found that 91% of parents felt there should be increased mental health support for children due to Covid social isolation. Based on such a finding, the research team recommended to policy makers that “schools need appropriate funding and resources to meet the socio-emotional needs of students. This investment is crucial to ensure their successes and their ability to overcome the traumas and challenges they have faced and will continue to face in the coming year.”
In Vietnam, students and their families also faced similar trauma and uncertainty when the number of Covid-19 cases suddenly spiked. Lockdown measures, remote schooling and feelings of isolation as well as the disorientation of many unusual deaths are also said to have affected students’ mental wellbeing. Yet this aspect of the pandemic is not much discussed or debated.
During this difficult time of Covid-19, parents, students, educators should pay more attention to the mental well-being of students. They can start with small steps like learning about mental health themselves and finding out how a therapist or counselor could help their children understand what they’re going through during this time of disorientation. The school system should begin to integrate mental health services and allocate adequate resources to them.
Eventually, this should lead to having a permanent counselor at the school so that students can access it; or the school can also tap into community resources to provide needed mental health services to students and staff.
*Nga Than is a PhD Candidate in Sociology, City University of New York – The Graduate Center. The opinions expressed are his own.