• Many anxieties are linked to the need to control situations, and fear of the unknown. Currently, we don’t know what is going to happen in the future for sure and we are not personally able to control it.
• Social isolation can be very damaging as we all need social interaction for positive mental health, and for adolescents this is especially true.
• As well as planning and setting up online learning for students and addressing issues for safeguarding, key people involved in student mental health also need to meet and plan how they are going to monitor and support student mental health and wellbeing.
The current situation with COVID-19 presents us with challenges regarding how we can continue to support the mental health and wellbeing of our students, and indeed our staff. My anxiety levels have certainly increased during this time and this will be the same for many people. We can still support mental health and wellbeing, we just have to be more creative about it.
One of the main ways the current situation can compound mental health issues is to do with control. Many anxieties are linked to the need to control situations, and fear of the unknown. Currently, we don’t know what is going to happen in the future for sure, and we are not personally able to control it. We are unable to control the possibility of family members being harmed. Another issue is that social isolation can be very damaging. We all need social interaction for positive mental health, and for adolescents this is especially true. Our normal ways of social interaction have been withdrawn, so we have to be creative in using technology to ensure that we maintain social interaction as much as possible.
In terms of monitoring student mental health, and that of staff, we are not able to have the daily contact with people that us allows us to have conversations with them and observe behaviours which can be indicators of mental health difficulties. As well as planning and setting up online learning for students and addressing issues for safeguarding, key people also need to meet and plan how they are going to monitor and support student mental health and wellbeing.
This article suggests some ideas to help you continue to support student mental wellbeing.
Set up effective communications
Ensure that any online systems you set up use calming and clear language and do not compound anxiety levels. Language plays an important part in mental health. Use positive language as much as possible. As well as sending students academic work, send them reassuring messages. Use a variety of information systems, such as newsletters and emails, and try to use videos so that families with lower literacy levels don’t miss out.
As part of supporting mental health it is also important that school online learning systems are flexible. Attendance regulations have been disregarded during this time, so students should not be expected to log on and complete online learning every day. Every domestic situation is different and we must not compound stresses in home life.
Set up new ways of delivering support
List key staff whom students can contact if they need to talk to someone, by email, telephone or a video format such as Skype or Facetime. The staff can be pastoral staff, heads of year, appropriately trained teaching assistants and so on.
Send out a special mental wellbeing newsletter giving details of external support websites/numbers. Include tips for family mental wellbeing. Perhaps include a ‘frequently asked questions and answer’ section relating to the biggest concerns.
Provide suggestions for what students can do to support their own mental wellbeing – talk about routines, sleeping habits, the importance of social interaction. Perhaps provide some mindfulness or relaxation activities they can do at home.
For vulnerable students, or those who were receiving mental health support in school, arrange a time to speak to them online or over the telephone weekly. Enquire after their welfare, talk about their specific worries, and talk through what activities they can do to manage their wellbeing.
Social media – the good and the bad
It’s especially important that we provide guidance for students on how to use social media effectively during this time. It will have an important part in supporting their mental health and allowing social interaction, but it can also have a negative impact.
Encourage students to use social media for social interaction. Suggestions might include:
• setting up challenges with their friends and doing online quizzes
• arranging times each day when they will have online discussions
• watching things that make them laugh
• having watch parties together.
Advise students on how to manage the negative side of social media, such as how to fact check any information they see, and not to share unless they have fact checked. Recommend reputable websites to use for news and information – BBC Newsround is amazing for this. Advise them to unfollow consistently negative pages/people/sites.
Many schools now have their own social media accounts. Use them to spread good news as well as school information. There are some great positive news sites; share them and their posts.
Staff mental wellbeing
It’s important to remember that staff mental wellbeing will be suffering at this time as well, and will need supporting. Provide information sources for staff to access mental health support, possibly allocate key staff to whom others can talk to discuss any concerns. Also, consider staff social interaction if they are consistently working from home, in the same way as you support students, for example, you could set up a weekly school quiz for staff to take part in.
Your mental wellbeing
It’s also important that you don’t neglect your own mental health while trying to support the mental health of others. Maintain social interaction with your personal groups for fun, not just for work reasons.
Manage your social media – remove negativity from any timeline. Limit how often you news-check and only use reputable sites.
Have someone you can ‘offload’ to without judgement; someone who can provide you with the same service you provide to others. Acknowledge that you will have good days and bad days.
• Young Minds: www.youngminds.org.uk
• BBC news: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround
• Coronavirus: Your questions answered, BBC news: https://bit.ly/Y-Q-A
• Mental health helplines https://bit.ly/NHS-MH
• Samaritans www.samaritans.org
• Coronavirus: How to protect your mental health, BBC news: https://bit.ly/C19-MH
About the author
Sam Garner Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students (www.samanthagarner. co.uk). She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (www.rebalanceprogramme.com).