When COVID-19 hit the global community, the impact of the pandemic on mental health gained worldwide attention. Media articles and research papers emerged highlighting the pandemic’s effects on the mental health of populations, especially young people, health workers and other vulnerable segments of society.
Some have even considered emerging mental health concerns to be a new epidemic. With the closure of schools and institutes, children and youth have had to deal with a complete change in their lifestyle overnight.
With no social or physical activities, no peer contact and with many dealing with the illness and death of their loved ones, these last 18 months have plunged our children and youth into a new reality that they have never faced before.
Now as we move along in 2021, governments are being urged to open schools even as they struggle to maintain required safety protocols. This decision has implications. On the one hand adolescents are yet to be vaccinated and with infection rates fluctuating across states the reopening of schools is risky.
On the other hand, attempts made in the last 18 months to provide digital learning platforms have failed to reach at least 30 to 40 percent of students across the country. This is particularly true for youth attending government schools and with little to no access to smartphones, tablets or a stable internet connection.
The absence of classroom teaching for another academic year seems unimaginable, with potentially serious consequences on these children's development and learning.
As we open our schools and institutions, we need to be aware of the impact that such stresses have had on students’ mental health.
Many will still be dealing with grief and loss from the hospitalization and/or death of loved ones, isolation from significant adults, and ongoing worry about family members.
Alongside this will be the anxiety of re-engaging with in-person classroom learning. In addition, the pandemic has created uncertainties such as parental loss of jobs, food insecurity and in some cases loss of or change in housing. And lastly, there is the underlying anxiety of a potential third wave.
While there will be the urge by educators and parents alike to focus on diminished or lost levels of learning and an emphasis on completion of the syllabus, it is important that teachers, parents and school authorities be prepared to create the support structures students will need to successfully re-start their education.
One example of such an effort was conducted by CorStone in partnership with the Education Department of Bihar, whereby booklets with colorful worksheets and stories were distributed to Std. VII students.
These worksheets included simple skills around resilience, emotional regulation, planning, problem solving etc. and how to apply such skills in the present crisis to better respond to imminent challenges being faced by the children.
Teachers were oriented online on the subject matter material so that when students reached out to them, they could guide them through the relevant skills and exercises.
Parents too will need to be oriented on how to best support their children as they return to school. Parents should avoid putting pressure on their children and reach out to engage them in conversations to prepare them emotionally for their return to a social setting.
Integrating the building of emotional resilience skills along with academics is an urgent need – and orienting teachers, parents and school authorities on what this entails and what their role should be is urgent and crucial.
Education departments should seek to plan activities and orientations through state and national bodies such as NCERT or SCERT.
An interesting initiative to release stress, anxiety, depression etc. and promote good mental health practices being implemented in the form of the Happiness Curriculum in government schools in Delhi is one example of a scalable solution.
Through mini models on breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation interspersed between classes, the programme seeks to promote holistic well-being amongst students.
Similarly, CorStone’s resilience-based Youth First program is another example of a school-based curricula that seeks to provide skills training to bolster student well-being during and beyond the pandemic.
Promotive mental health programs along with access to mental health services must be integrated within the educational institutions as part of the response to the new normal.
In most cases, this doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, but rather realigning existing programs. Existing social and emotional learning and life skills programs need to be realigned to include a larger focus on building resilience skills that children and youth will need to deal with the uncertainties and accompanying stresses of the pandemic.
Supporting our youth in this time of difficulty will take a collective effort -- one that helps them to recognize their strengths and resources, encourages them to collectively support each other, and which engages parents and educators alike in providing the emotional support and structures they will need to bounce back and thrive.
(Gracy Andrew is the Vice President + Country Director at CorStone India.)