Mental Wellness Resources for Students Returning to School
On 8 March, schools in England reopened, to the great relief of many students (and their parents). Along with the ability to return to a relatively normal academic life, students can now resume after-school sports and other activities, and any two individuals are now allowed to socialise in outdoor public spaces. All of these changes will doubtless help most children and teens to enjoy a healthier, more well-rounded quality of life; meanwhile, their parents will be able to focus on work tasks without the burden of around-the-clock childcare. From this perspective, the reopening of schools is a ray of hope. Unfortunately for some students, this process is every bit as harrowing as entering lockdown was, possibly more so. An enormous amount of stress has fallen on the shoulders of some children and teens during the third round of lockdown and during the pandemic as a whole, and they will need plenty of support to make the return transition to a normal life.
How distance learners fared during the lockdowns will have depended on a staggering array of variables. Even if students did not contract COVID-19 themselves, it’s highly possible that one or more of their parents, relatives, or friends did. They may have experienced uncertainty as to whether their loved one/s would recover—or worse, as the Mental Health Foundation points out, they may be coping with the trauma of losing them. It’s also possible that their family faced financial, food, or housing insecurity as the result of one or more caregivers losing their jobs or being hospitalised.
Academically speaking, those not as well-equipped for distance learning may have fallen significantly behind in one or more subjects; some students may have anxiety about their ability to catch up or about the prospect of being called on or mocked in class. Then there are students’ social lives, already complex enough under normal circumstances with the pressures of (and bullying on) social media. With children and teens having been forced to socialise exclusively online during lockdowns, these pressures will only have intensified, and having to face bullies and peers in person again can cause intense anxiety. These are only a few reasons that students’ mental wellness may have been compromised during lockdowns and distance learning. One specific source of social anxiety may stem from racism: BAME students may be experiencing a spectrum of bullying, from casual racism/microaggressions to violent hate crimes.
Fortunately, there are a number of resources children and teens can benefit from as they make the journey back to in-person learning. Parents, teachers, and students themselves need to seek these resources out and be proactive about managing transition stress. Once the return to school has been successfully navigated, some of these resources can help with other major transitions in life as well.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children
First, parents, caregivers, and teachers need to simply be mindful of the fact that many students will face a range of mental health struggles upon returning to school. Second, says the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), it’s important to talk to children about how they are feeling. Ask them what worries them about returning to school, tell them that their concerns are normal, and let them know that many of their peers are experiencing difficulties too. (YoungMinds UK offers similar strategies here, as does this article in The Guardian’s School section.) These kinds of discussions can help students break down their emotions into manageable, actionable categories rather than leaving them feeling helpless, overwhelmed or alone.
The NSPCC advises educators and caregivers to generally familiarise themselves with updated information from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). CAMHS is part of the National Health Services Foundation Trust; it operates in various parts of London and Bedfordshire, counseling children with a range of specific disorders as well as those experiencing general anxiety, depression, or bullying. There’s also Childline, a free and confidential hotline service, and children should be encouraged to use it as needed. The National Health Service (NHS) offers general tips for helping students make the transition back to school, and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families has published this PDF on helping children during times of unexpected change and transition.
It’s also important to seek out guidance for more specific wellness concerns. Scope, for example, offers holistic information about school reopenings for parents and teachers of children with pre-existing special needs. For children suffering from the loss of a friend or family member, Cruse Bereavement Care discusses a variety of ways to consider their needs. The Mental Health Foundation has a good list of general COVID-related mental health resources, but it addresses finance, housing, and unemployment anxiety as well. Arts England has published an article called “Anti-racism resources for children and young people” that is likely to be useful for parents and teachers of students from all walks of life. It includes anti-racist reading lists, teaching resource packs, organisations who offer workshops, and social media campaigns.
Older students and teens
Older students and teens may prefer to explore mental health resources on their own. CAMHS has a list of approved apps and services that young adults can turn to. Mind, an organisation in England and Wales, offers help for various aspects of mental health in a page for 11-18-year-olds. Prince’s Trust has published a list of resources for students in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The list addresses specific kinds of mental wellness concerns from general anxiety to eating and bipolar disorders, suicide prevention and parent addiction/drug use.
There are also mental health apps older children and teens can try, each with a different approach. NHS and The Good Web Guide agree that the free MindShift Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) app is a useful tool for managing anxiety. It offers an impressive array of cognitive reorientation functions, from quick anxiety relief to a thought journal to experiments and challenges. Moodgym is another free, CBT-based app. As mindfulness becomes increasingly recognised as an important element in emotion management, meditation apps can be helpful too. NHS recommends HeadSpace (a free version of the app is available); The Good Web Guide recommends SmilingMind (free) and Calm (free trial available). Still other apps, such as SuperBetter and Daylio, approach mental wellness through games and diaries. Alternatively, the free app Kooth offers the combination of a diary-based tool, discussion board, and chat rooms where kids and teens can safely talk to counsellors.
There are a great number of ways that students can begin to address mental health issues related to the pandemic. It’s especially important to be mindful of them now when the return to school may pose additional challenges. By starting with open conversations and identifying specific areas of concern, caregivers and teachers can get started with appropriate resources to help students forge their way toward good mental health.
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