Updated: Sep 23, 2020
“Safe space” is a word we use to imply: “a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations …” 1, to put it simply, a judgment-free place. A place where people can just be themselves and not feel inadequate or “not enough” based on someone else’s expectation of them or people of themselves.
Where might that be?
I recently received a call from a young group of well-meaning students of a school in Mumbai. They shared that there was a situation in their class, and one student was being accused of sexually abusive behavior towards other classmates. Now, the entire class had decided to look at him with disgust, judgment, and isolate him from all group activities. He was friendless. They now “hated” him.
This student, let’s call him Jim, was terrified that, were his parents to become aware of this, all hell would break loose. His mother suffered an illness and was precarious, his father was stressed. He questioned what might his father do, and what might happen to his mother.
He was terrified that the school authorities would find out and he would have to deal with unrelenting punishments and the entire school would become privy to this. He found that thought unbearable.
He was feeling hopeless and helpless.
He mentioned that he did not want to live and could not see a way out, and was self- harming.
The group of students approached me. They said they were worried about their classmate. He wasn’t their friend, but they did not want to see him hurt, or harm himself. They said they could not speak to the school or his family. They also could not reach out to their own parents for support. They wanted both, the classmates and the boy to find a “safe space” to deal with the situation at hand without anyone knowing.
Over several conversations a solution was arrived at; one that was safe for all.
It is commendable that these young students took on the responsibility to help Jim stay safe.
But, this made me sit back and think, are these students safe? What is their safe space when it comes to situations like these?
Children spend time either at home or at school. Both these spaces are meant to be safe spaces for our children to talk, have their distress dealt with, and emotional needs met in a non-threatening way. Somehow, it seemed as though home and school was not that space for them. I question, where then should our children go?
This is a question I seek to answer through a question I pose to the readers. If children come up and share their mistakes, mental health distress, substance abuse, or any other vulnerability that does not resonate with our values as parents or teachers- how would we truly respond to it?
Would we able to tell our child’s distress or that they may be thinking of self-harm and or suicide? Would we know how to help?
Would we listen without judgment and create a safe space for them to explore possibilities of development or would we reprimand them?
Creating a safe space requires one to develop empathy and to be able to understand the struggle of the person at risk. If it is a loved one, we tend not to want to accept the situation like it, in our minds, is a reflection of us, and in some way, our failure. But, this isn’t true. And what is critical is to be able to move beyond that feeling and truly help the one we love.
Learning and understanding mental health and distress would be the first step. Are you ready to take the step?
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