Unprecedented violence among school children in Tunisia prompted social associations to lobby for using art as a therapeutic and preventive tool for children’s mental health.
The Tunisian government introduced measures pertaining to psychological and mental health, including appointing psychologists in primary schools. Yet, psychologist Souha Yakoubi said, there is much work to be done when it comes to mental health in Tunisia.
“We lack a culture of mental and psychological health. The well-being of a child and individuals is seen as physical and financial,” Yakoubi said. “We notice today that there are more psychologists in school medicine. The number increased in the last years, including in schools in urban areas, however, that is not sufficient.”
Yakoubi pointed to the importance of preventive strategies, such as artistic activities, to ensure a safe environment for children to grow mentally and psychologically.
Yakoubi said at least two associations, L’Art Rue and Adw’art, collaborated with primary schools to organise regular artistic activities for children in impoverished areas where high rates of violence and juvenile delinquency are recorded.
L’Art Rue began a project for deconstructing violence through art in 2018. The programme, implemented in two schools, included workshops involving 90 children, 14 teachers and 25 parents.
Soufien Ouissi, co-founder of L’Art Rue, said all members of society are responsible for the well-being of children.
“We don’t have enough solutions for the time being and violence is rampant. This is something we noticed with children in the workshops and artistic residencies,” Ouissi said.
He said L’Art Rue sought the help of psychologists and psychiatrists to devise an artistic programme that can serve as a therapeutic tool.
“Artists conducting the workshops noticed the aggressive behaviour of children but were not equipped to handle it,” Yakoubi said. “This is when we stepped in.
“After observations, we concluded the children needed psychological support that could only be delivered through art because it is easier to reach a child through artistic activities because they have fun and also develop cognitive skills.”
While it is hard to change an environment in which unfavourable conditions surround children, helping them can be achieved through artistic activities and workshops with teachers and parents.
“Teachers also needed help,” Yakoubi said. “They are frustrated and need to talk about the issues they encounter in the classroom, including how to control anger, how to deal with a hyperactive class and how to handle violent behaviour.
“Parents were also thirsty for our sessions. They wanted to learn more on how to cope with their children, communicate with them and make them more efficient.”
Actress and filmmaker Nejma Zghidi, who worked on the project, stressed the importance of theatre classes to help children recognise their space and identify boundaries to keep violent behaviour under control and implement mutual respect.
“These workshops should be extended to other schools. Art is indispensable. When working with children, I noticed that they are either too close to each other or at each other’s throat in less than a minute. If you don’t help them recognise their space and boundaries, they will transgress others’ space which results in violence in the group,” Zghidi said.
Adw’art association, which offers music classes for the children in impoverished areas, partnered with L’Art Rue on the project.
“The amazing thing is that the children have responded well to music classes. We noticed that they are also learning discipline through music. It has impacted their behaviour positively,” said Adw’art President Rym Bouargoub.
“Those struggling with social anxiety have become more active. Others have become more disciplined. Even parents remarked that their children’s results have improved since they became involved in music classes. Having artistic activities definitely motivated them,” she said.
Rihab Jebali, president of the Tunisian Association of Music Therapy, said: “Using music in therapy helps children feel better and plays an important role in their cognitive and psychological development. It also helps them to communicate and become aware of the world.
“For hyperactive children, for instance, it helps them make use of their energy in an effective way to calm them down and control their emotions.”
Artistic activities for children in impoverished areas help curb violence at school and bring more motivation and stability to children.
Yakoubi said it is unfortunate that Tunisian families are not aware of the importance of their children’s mental health.
“Parents often refuse to admit that their child is not well psychologically. Mental health is still stigmatised despite the progress we made, which is why it is important to take this project to a national level,” Yakoubi said.