HerFamily investigates: What mental health supports will our children have when they return to school?
"The pandemic may have been their first experience of losing someone close to them."
When I think back to what I learned in school, I can’t help but wonder why the formation of waterfalls was a bigger priority than teaching us about mental health.
Imagine we were taught about ways to seek support, different types of mental illnesses and how to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health in Ireland.
Unfortunately, the school system thought teaching a group of teenagers about different types of rocks was more beneficial. Unsurprisingly, nobody has asked me about the difference between limestone and granite since I left school.
The Government is currently preparing to re-open schools next month and parents are already worried. The worry about COVID-19 still lingers, but what is really playing on their minds is the impact the pandemic and this return to school will have on their children’s mental health.
Is there enough support in schools? Do children feel comfortable talking about their mental health in a country that often shrugs off emotions and brushes them under the carpet? The ‘ah sure look, it’ll be grand’ attitude isn’t always the best way to be.
With mental illnesses in children doubling since the start of the pandemic, it’s vital that the services and support are there when schools open their doors in September. We cannot let them just carry on as if the past year and a half hasn’t happened. We need to tackle any damage before it spirals and gets worse.
Speaking about the return to the class, secondary school teacher Sarah told HerFamily that she would like to see schools prioritise three things; self-esteem, resilience, and bereavement.
“For our young people, the pandemic may have been their first experience of losing someone close to them. Even if they didn't lose a relative/close family friend, the sense of grief globally may be a lot for a young person to deal with, it is a lot for even an adult to manage at times.
“Its inclusion in the curriculum would also help give our young people the confidence and tools to speak to one another about grief without shutting down.”
Sarah continued: “The only way we can improve the mental health support offered to students is by allowing trained outside agencies to come into schools and either deliver therapy and mental health lessons to pupils directly or to provide training to teaching staff to do this.”
We cannot sweep the trauma of the pandemic under a rug and expect the country’s students to jump back to normal in an instant. The pressure placed on students, especially those in secondary school is already causing a momentous amount of stress and unease. When you add the intensity of the pandemic into that equation you're left with a huge majority of students who feel like they're carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.
They have been over-exposed to negative news, heartache, grief, turmoil, and fear since March 2020 and something needs to be done to support them, properly. Telling them to go for a walk just isn't going to cut it.
Speaking to HerFamily, Minister for Education Norma Foley said that students’ mental wellbeing is her main priority as they prepare to re-open.
“As we start a new school year, we know that most children and young people and school staff are looking forward to reconnecting with each other and settling back into school life. Naturally, some may feel apprehensive about the return to school. That’s to be expected and it’s a normal response at a time of transition and change.
“School communities are continuing to work hard, with support and guidance from the Departments of Education and Health, to ensure that schools continue to be safe. This work will continue on an ongoing basis to maintain the safety of all in the school community.
Minister Foley said she “remains deeply committed to supporting the promotion of wellbeing and mental health in our schools.”
Embedded in the whole-school approach is the recognition that pupils may have different needs at different times and that a continuum of support in relation to wellbeing should be made available.
It is believed the NEPS guidance document for schools to support wellbeing at the start of this coming new school year will be adapted by school communities to plan for supporting wellbeing on this journey. Schools are encouraged to use a reflective, school self-evaluation approach to identify and prioritise the needs of their own school community in relation to the promotion of wellbeing and mental health, and to respond to meeting those needs.
Minister Foley says there are so many ways to help students cope with the mental stress of the pandemic. Helping students build strong social and emotional skills and developing supportive relationships within the school setting is key. Being part of a school environment and culture that feels both physically and psychologically safe, in which they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, knowing that their voice is heard, and they feel supported will help ease any anxiety that has built up during the pandemic.
Building resilience in pupils is another key factor in supporting their mental wellbeing as they re-open this September. Schools will continue to provide a responsive continuum of support that addresses the range of experiences that impacts on the school community and also signposts to external supports and resources. They will also focus on school staff wellbeing, especially because student wellbeing is influenced by the wellbeing of the adults around them. Support for school staff’s well-being is essential to the well-being of students.
Partnering with parents and encouraging student voice and agency are also key elements of this guidance. Minister Foley wants to ensure that our students' voices, concerns, and worries are being heard and acknowledged.
It is vital to remind both parents and children that there is a lot of help there for anyone suffering from mental health issues, no matter what age you are. People suffering from mental illnesses may feel alone in their battle but the support is there. Finding the courage and strength to say you need additional help and support is the biggest, but best step any student can take.
A broad range of supports, resources, and professional learning opportunities are being provided by the Department’s support services to support schools to promote and support wellbeing and resilience.
The National Educational Psychological Service of the Department provides a comprehensive, school-based psychological service to all primary and post-primary schools. Apart from the provision of an individual casework service, NEPS teams offer training and guidance for teachers in the provision of universal and targeted therapeutically informed approaches and early intervention to promote children’s wellbeing, social, emotional and academic development. Initiatives such as the Incredible Years Social-Emotional Learning Programmes and the FRIENDS Resilience Programmes have been welcomed by schools and their impact positively evaluated.
These programmes, which reduce anxiety and promote coping and resilience in children and young people from 4-18 years, can be delivered by class teachers, universally or to targeted smaller groups of pupils. The NEPS Support and Development service reaches an estimated 25,000 teachers annually.
The Department of Health also has responsibility for the provision of counselling services in Ireland, and through HSE Primary Care Psychology and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) provides clinical support to children and young people with mental health needs.
Students are also encouraged to reach out to e-mental health services that offer online text and telephone supports like the Samaritans, Bodywhys, Childline, Pieta House, and Crisis Text Ireland.
Knowing there is help and support out there is a huge comfort to parents, but the worry won’t disappear instantly. You may feel helpless and overwhelmed, but teacher Sarah encouraged parents to simply talk to their children about mental health as if they were talking about any other topic.
Normalising it is one of the best steps you can make. She explained: “Make time every day to ask them how their day went, how they're feeling, and ask them twice if they seem a bit hesitant.”
She added: “Engage with the school. If you're worried about your child, if something has happened at home or if you're concerned about something happening at school, please let their teachers know.
“I cannot express enough just how useful it is as a teacher if we know your child didn't have the greatest weekend. A lot of our pupils will tell us but there are others who won't and I promise we don't want to give detentions for no homework if a student has been really struggling with something at home. Teaching and non-teaching staff really do want the best for your child and we know how difficult the two years have been, so please engage with the school, engage with their teachers, keep us informed and we will do the same.”
The Duchess of Cambridge once said: "A child's mental health is just as important as their physical health and deserves the same quality of support."
And we couldn't agree more.
It's about time Ireland started to treat children's mental health with the respect and urgency it deserves.