Schools must have mental health in reopening plans

Umoja Secondary School

Students from Umoja Secondary School in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County at Kamukunji Estate in the town after they were allegedly sent home for school fees on January 13, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyatataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The return to school might be exciting for many students but others might face a tough readjustment period. 
  • The education system should invest in their wellness by ensuring school-based mental health and guidance and counselling services. 

Experts agree that schools have a tremendous influence on a children’s wellbeing; hence, the unprecedented pandemic-induced educational context with extended school closures could have been very harmful to their mental health. 

A recent assessment of Chinese students indicated that lengthy school closures affect mental health. That can help us to judiciously prepare for mental health problems among students.

Schools should focus on helping the students to process what they have learnt and experienced during the pandemic and instilling hope and optimism rather than striving to recover the lost time and preparing for exams.

Schools face daunting challenges; let’s not expect teaching and learning to take place successfully in a crisis without addressing the mental and emotional needs of students.

The return to school might be exciting for many students but others might face a tough readjustment period with increased fear and anxiety as they worry about catching the disease. 

Efforts to increase social distancing include banning co-curricular activities, yet studies show these activities promote holistic development by enhancing students’ mental, emotional and physical health.

Schools are the obvious place to reach at-risk youth and make them feel engaged, safe, secure, supported and loved. The education system should invest in their wellness by ensuring school-based mental health and guidance and counselling services. 

Early intervention

The teacher may be the first trusted adult the student has encountered outside home since the Covid-19 containment measures began.

Teachers should be encouraged to connect one-on-one with students to identify and determine how best to help those struggling with mental challenges.

Being extra-vigilant will enable them to identify signs of distress. Early intervention can reduce the severity of mental issues and impact on academic progress.

It is also crucial to recognise that teachers, who form the greatest mental and emotional support system for the students at school, may also be experiencing a great deal of vicarious trauma. They may be coping with their past experiences and feeling exposed to the virus. Let schools have teacher mental health and wellbeing in the reopening plans.

Finally, family members can help learners to navigate their feelings during school reopening by having an open conversation about what it is that’s worrying them and reassuring them that it’s natural to feel anxious.

It is important for families to find ways of coping with their anxiety in order to make a smoother transition to school for the children, who easily pick up their families’ stress and anxiety. Also talk about mental health problems, what depression or anxiety is and how to look for the signs.

We can help the education system to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic stronger than before.

Dr Gachogu is an education psychologist and counsellor. margaret_nduta @yahoo.com

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