How we can help pupils in this mental health crisis

With pupil mental health suffering on a scale not seen before, teachers must stay alert, says psychologist Tara Porter
13th January 2021, 12:02pm
Tara Porter


How we can help pupils in this mental health crisis
Covid & Student Wellbeing: Some 53 Per Cent Of Young People Are Worried About Their Futures, New Research Shows

When I sat down to write about protecting and supporting mental health during this latest lockdown, I thought I should re-read the column I wrote during the initial lockdown

I found tears on my cheeks from my own naivety 10 months ago. While I foresaw the impact that the lockdown would have on children, I severely underestimated how bad it would get in terms of children's mental health.

So, writing this second column, I want to think about what's the most important thing here. And I would argue that it is health.

I know there are lots of philosophical debates about the purpose of education, and some of you think that schools should be solely about imparting knowledge and acquiring qualifications. More of you probably take a more holistic view: that education is about setting children on a good trajectory in life. 

However, if the past few months have shown us anything, it is the importance of school as part of the social fabric of a functioning society.

Coronavirus: Children are suffering

Qualifications, exams, grade boundaries: these can be whisked away in a moment at the whim of the powers that be. But relationships, friendships, structure, routine, activity, discipline, consistency, a kindly adult keeping an eye out for a vulnerable child: these are the stuff in life that schools provide, and which help to maintain a healthy society.

Without those things, children (and adults) suffer mentally. And, from the frontline of mental health, I can tell you that they are suffering. 

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' child and adolescent faculty, said last week: "We are now seeing increasing numbers of young people with advanced and severe mental health problems…This is on a scale many of us have not seen before."

But - and it's a big but - that doesn't mean that schools should stay open or try to offer face-to-face teaching to as many children as they can. Because, as we now know, that contributes to the spread of the deadly virus.

So, we are back to the most important thing here, and that is health: immediate physical safety and mental health. Qualifications need to come secondary to that. Mental health doesn't trump learning and education, because they are intrinsically linked in children and young people. But it should certainly trump exams

Mental health: Supporting pupils through these dark days

In healthcare and education, we are on the verge of being overwhelmed, as we try to find unique ways to work with troubled young people. What can we all do to help children and adolescents in these - literally and metaphorically - dark days?

1. Go back to basics

The priority has to be keeping children physically safe, then mentally well and educated as best we can. 

By "educated", I mean igniting a passion, an interest, some knowledge, some skills. 

In secondary school, I would recommend reducing the focus on qualifications, as this is likely to be anxiety-provoking, because of the lack of certainty about what is going to happen.

With formal exams cancelled this year, why don't you allow yourself to enjoy the freedom to educate, rather than having to teach to pass the exam? That might mean having the time to explore young people's questions more, or allowing them more time to explore the relevance to their own lives. This sort of passion is inspirational to children - we all remember teachers like this. 

2. Reassurance is key 

Remind them: this will pass. "Yes, it's a worry what's happening with your exams, but it will get sorted in the end, and it will probably work out fine. If it doesn't, there will be a plan B for you."

3. Hope is transformational

Keep your eye on the future good times, and try to stay calm about the uncertainty. The most important thing is that you and your pupils stay as well - mentally and physically - as possible. 

4. Eat, sleep, move

When adults tell children - and especially adolescents - to eat and sleep, what they tend hear is: "Blah blah blah." So it's important that schools schedule the eating and moving into the children's day. Some gentle interest in what they are doing in these areas is likely to be more helpful than direct instruction.

5. Take an interest

Be mindful that not all parents are there, keeping an eye on their children. Taking an interest in what your pupils are going to do during breaks and after school can help them to feel that someone cares. 

And, in some cases, parents have less sway with adolescents than a teacher they admire. Your guidance could be key. 

A sense of connection can be crucial, too. Social media can help with this - it can be a positive thing. But, of course, it can also allow worries to spiral up, leading to hysteria. We saw that only too clearly in Trump's America last week. Naming that process, and pointing out that it can also happen with a teenager's own emotions, can help them to resist it. 

6. Remember that one size doesn't fit all

Beyond the basics of eating, sleeping and moving, one size doesn't fit all in mental health, just as it doesn't in education. 

Some children find it helpful to talk about their problems; others find it excruciating. Some children benefit mentally from being more active; some prefer to have their basic activity and then curl up with a book

7. Have fun

Routine and consistency are important in mental and physical wellbeing, but so are fun and joy. Intersperse regularity and consistency, with a fillip to liven things up. 

I know you try to keep a pastoral eye on all the children you teach, and that is particularly important at the moment. How are they doing? Your intervention, your noticing, your curiosity may be the one thing that makes the difference. 

Back to Dr Dubicka again: "Many children have been sitting at home, isolated without access to education or social care, and problems are missed." Your eyes are key. 

Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist in the NHS and private practice. She also works at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and is Tes' mental health columnist. She tweets as @drtjap. The views expressed are her own  

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