How Do We Protect the Mental Health of Students in a Pandemic  

UNESCO’s Minding the Mind campaign gives tools to students to deal with mental health.  

Health News
3 min read
The burden of self-harm and suicides, depressive disorders and anxiety disorders is growing across India.

While the headlines have all focused on the COVID pandemic in our schools, there is a connected health crisis that we must deal with -- mental health.

Learners of all age groups had their in-person school connection cut off, losing physical access to their peers. Senior students across the country have had their graduations cancelled.

And for too many students across the country, poor internet connectivity meant that they simply could not interact or participate at the level they wanted. All of these situations represent real losses for students and put a burden on their mental and emotional health and can hold them back from success.

If a student has a hard time adjusting to “the new normal,” or is scared of the uncertainty in their future, they could begin to experience a high anxiety that will affect many aspects of their lives: their social connections, their physical health, and indeed, their performance in school.  

Minding Our Minds

At UNESCO, we are committed to the United Nations’ sustainable development goal (SDG) 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all. There were challenges before COVID-19 struck.

Now that we are more than half a year into living with the virus, things are even worse, especially for marginalised groups: girls, disabled students, those who come from poorer backgrounds or who live farther from urban centres.

Earlier this year, UNESCO started the Minding our Minds campaign because it is clear to us that a comprehensive mental health strategy is essential in minimising the setback students face during this pandemic. It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed. To highlight the importance of the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the mental health of marginalised communities, UNESCO New Delhi created five awareness posters, which are available in four languages English, Hindi, Sinhala and Tamil.  

In order to fight the negative impacts of this pandemic, we need to make sure our students have the mental health support necessary to cope with the losses and transitions of the past year. Putting the focus on good mental health practices can also give us an opportunity to honour the centuries-old practices that are woven into India’s culture.

Tools for Better Mental Health

Meditation and yoga are invaluable tools that can use controlled breathing and focus to help even the youngest students deal with their anxiety and confusion during this age of disruption. And in the case of yoga, the opportunity for physical exercise brings even more benefits to the mind.

Thankfully, these traditional methods are accessible to everyone — especially those working or learning from home — through online videos, free apps, and other online guides. While these methods are nowadays practiced all over the world, India’s new National Education Policy makes clear that they are also an integral part of Indian heritage and should be honoured as such. Put together, this means that traditional mindfulness practices are an important and uniquely Indian tool in combatting current high stress levels.  

There are many other important measures that families can take to protect their children’s mental health: keeping a healthy diet and encouraging physical exercise; using online gaming or social media to stay connected with friends and peers; and keeping a regular routine and getting enough sleep.

UNESCO’s new Minding our Minds Generic Course to be launched soon contains lots of great tips and strategies for making sure our students are cared for during this difficult time.

As the Indian government’s new National Education Policy makes clear, education is a “great leveller” that creates an essential pathway for students’ socio-economic mobility, and the country’s success on the world stage in the decades to come.

In order to protect this promise for the current generation and India’s future, it is imperative that we help students and their families as they deal with the anxiety, confusion and loss that our current pandemic has brought.

(Eric Falt is the Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.)

(The article was first published in FIT and has been republished with permission)

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