Based on what has been seen at The LightHouse Arabia and from my interactions with other mental health professionals worldwide, the mental health implications of the pandemic have been unprecedented. These can be seen through an increase in anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress symptoms or disorder, acute stress disorder, sleep disorders, as well as loneliness, burnout, domestic abuse/child abuse and relationship problems.
Stressed parents are the hardest part of the pandemic for younger children. If a parent is feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious due to world events, then it is likely that they will not be able to see, contain or help their child process the difficult emotions that the child might be going through. Children look to the parents to regulate themselves, and if the parent’s nervous system is overloaded, then it is likely that they are unable to be fully present for their child.
Because children do not have the cognitive abilities to fully comprehend what is happening in the world, and young children are egocentric, they can often feel that such events are either their fault or somehow if they behaved better that they would be able to go back to the way things were (i.e. go play with their friends the way they used to). Children are also very tactile and need a lot of physical reassurance from teachers and their friends—they will not understand why their teacher can’t hug them the way they used to, and instead, they might internalise such moments as something being wrong with them.
Childhood is a time of great social and emotional development, and much of that happens in play and on the playground.
The school and play environments have become sterile and ‘socially distanced’, and this leaves a child missing out on some important elements of social and emotional development.
Saying this, children are resilient, and they will overcome adversity, as long as the parents prioritise their psychological and physical health above academic development. For resiliency, they are going to need rest, routine, and healthy role modelling.
Schools and teachers have had to adapt quickly due to the pandemic, with the new academic year having seen concern, frustration and fatigue in teachers. The added stress of keeping children and themselves safe from Covid-19 means they are not only concerned about their own underlying conditions but also worried about that of the children they teach, and of course their livelihood. There are also the added pressures to adapt to the new school environment and the continually changing rules. With the need to differentiate quickly between normal sickness and Covid-19, anxiety about the stresses on the medical system can set in. There is, of course, continued apprehension around schools closing again should there be a second spike and having to adjust back into home learning once again.
At Aldar Academies, there’s a big focus on the mental health of students due to the current situation. Many children are finding it hard to socialise and suffering with the effects from the health crisis, which Aldar Education is addressing in a range of ways, from hosting Mindful Mondays and Wellbeing Wednesdays in some academies to monthly happiness measures and virtual social clubs.
The take-up of counselling by students did not ease off during distance education. In fact, Aldar Education saw trends of increased engagement by some adolescents, as they didn’t fear being seen visiting with or speaking with a counsellor – considerations that will see them continue online access for students upon the return to school.
But, it’s not just the students in need of assistance during these unprecedented times, the teachers and staff within the school require initiatives to assist with their wellbeing, including virtual social nights, quiz nights and book clubs, and counseling sessions. In addition, Aldar has a support group for staff who have experienced a bereavement due to Covid-19 – called Solace.
At The Arbor School, planning for how best to support student mental health and wellbeing on their return to school has involved months of ongoing discussions with leadership teams as the situation evolved. Training for teachers was a priority, with the wellbeing team delivering CPD across the school to give everyone a chance to reflect on their own experiences and to anticipate some of the issues the students might be facing.
The first weeks of term were dedicated to student wellbeing, and involved creating feelings of safety through establishing routines, circle times to get to know individual ‘bubbles’ and increased opportunities to talk and reflect. Wellbeing continues to be a school priority at Arbor, with preventative support at the universal level through the school’s Arbor Mindfulness curriculum, with more targeted support is available for those who need it. Some students, who previously experienced anxiety or low mood, may find these unpredictable times particularly challenging, so the school’s therapeutic intervention programme includes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), play therapy and counselling.