Covid and mental health: warning signs for schools

The long-term impact of living through a pandemic may only start to become visible in the months ahead – here's how schools can support staff

Amy Sayer

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I still remember reassuring my Year 11 form group the coronavirus was nothing to worry about back in March 2020 like it was yesterday. 

And then suddenly, almost overnight, school was shut and the safety and normality of school life had disappeared. The impact was immediate: hoarding food and toilet rolls, a deadly virus no-one really understood the severity of, and daily death counts becoming the norm.

Meanwhile teachers and pupils were left to navigate a new world of remote teaching and learning and all that encompassed. The constant change and need for flexibility was relentless and tough. 

The long-term impact of living through a pandemic 

Normality may be returning – although how long it will last is anyone’s guess – but the fallout from experiencing the pandemic and having to live in a constantly high state of anxiety for such a long period of time will have taken a lot of physical and mental energy for school staff. 

Supporting students who are struggling with Covid-related anxiety and depression can be hard anyway, but often this meant school staff pushing aside their own tricky feelings and not have time to process them.

Due to extent and duration of the traumatic nature of the pandemic, many teachers may be experiencing some physical and psychological effects. 

Indeed, when the charity Education Support published its Teacher Wellbeing Index in 2020, it concluded that 67 per cent of educational professionals reported that their mental health had deteriorated as a result of Covid. It also found that 57 per cent would not feel comfortable talking to their line manager about their mental health.

This is a problem for schools. Colleagues need to be able to check-in with each other and process the impact of the pandemic in a way that works for them. 

A good first step is ensuring you are aware of the physical signs and behaviours which colleagues may display if they are suffering from mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by Covid and the pandemic:

The physical signs can include: 

  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss/gain
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Appearing distant in their interactions

Some of the behavioural symptoms may be:

  • Fight/flight/freeze responses to any changes in routine
  • Inflexibility or rigid thinking
  • Overthinking or excessive worry
  • Reluctance to socialise
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling restless or irritable
  • Sense of hopelessness or despair
  • Alcohol reliance

What may be particularly noticeable is that colleagues who may not have struggled with their mental health before now may be struggling to process the events they experienced during pandemics and may start showing one or many of these changes as result. 

As such, knowing your colleagues and having an environment where you can ask them about their mental health is more important than ever before. 

Creating a culture of support

This is not something that can be done overnight, of course. Creating a whole-school approach to staff mental health takes time and consideration for it to be meaningful. 

There needs to be adequate training for all staff and a culture of non-judgement and acceptance, so that colleagues feel safe and supported, and an awareness among staff of who they can turn to for help.

There are organisations that can help here, too. The Education Support phoneline is available 24/7, and can connect teachers with a range of support services. The Mind website has a range of resources to understand conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder further.

Having access to counselling may be useful to for colleagues that need to explore uncomfortable and scary thoughts in a safe and confidential space. 

Unfortunately, owing to the impact of Covid, there is often a lengthy waiting list via the NHS, so it may be worth checking if you school has signed up to support services that provide telephone counselling services. 

These will often be more immediate and may be helpful as short-term support in the first instance.

Finally, schools need to be able to recognise when extra support and signposting for colleagues may be needed by forming a genuinely caring culture to support staff mental health, and understanding the various behaviours linked to a trauma response is an essential part of that. 

Amy Sayer is a head of department and Mental Health Workshop Facilitator and author of Supporting staff mental health in your school

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Amy Sayer

Amy Sayer is a secondary school teacher and writer who has her first book on Staff Mental Health in Schools being released later this year.

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