Mental health and educationists’ duty

By Shah Shoaib Hashmi

Medical and psychological fears over Covid-19 and its impact on the education sector, public health, economy, and societies in general, have affected us all. For many students, whatever their age is and whether they are in a college or in a school, the upheaval and uncertainty experienced since March 2020 have been severe and have had a significant impact on students’ mental health.

Solitude, the challenges of online learning, and the pressure of staying on track with studies have all taken a toll on the mental health of all the learners, across the globe. While older learners may even have concerns about their prospects of availability of jobs in the upcoming difficult economic climate.

Vector illustration of mental health concept with brain, flowers, helping hand

Photo Credit: Harvard University / Getty Images

Potentially isolated from families and friends, partaking in lectures and classes online and with cases of Covid-19 on the rise, it is entirely understandable that students can be experiencing mental ill-health at this time of the age.

I must admit, some students might not even realize or may not be able to explain and feel the potency and gravity of this mental disturbance at this time. We have already seen too much disruption to children’s education in the last year and it is therefore essential that everything that can be done is done to prevent further disruption in schools and colleges in terms of improvement in education and in the mental health of the students as well.

With schools and colleges closures and continuing restrictions on the in-house study, both private and government education providers need to be alert to the issues and ready to support learners who are struggling.

Active listening is a good starting point, to deal with any issue of the students including mental illness. Educational professionals can reassure students that it’s understandable to feel worried about the pandemic. It can help to open up that conversation and let learners know they can speak to you if they feel any anxieties. As well as modelling ‘open conversations’, teachers can try to provide consistency to help things feel more normal.

Reassurance that ‘there is someone here’ to help, will go a long way to easing learners’ anxiety. If a student is opening up to you, a simple nod or reassuring sound can be enough to let them know that you are listening and then continue the conversation. Please remember, accept them as they are and respect their feelings, experiences, and values. Please, do not judge or criticize the students, unnecessarily. During the classroom environment, the anxiety of the learners can be reduced and alleviated by making choices simple, or assisting in making choices through open conversation and collaboratively arriving at decisions.

For the anxious students, the information should be cognitively chunked into manageable small segments, allowing ease of processing. Teachers should work with the students to prioritize what they can do right now, what should be done soon and what is not immediately important. Additionally, teaching strong mental health techniques alongside the curriculum will also help the students.

Educational professionals can support their students by helping them manage their thoughts and emotions well. This may include learning how to build mental strength, optimism, positivity, and resilience. I strongly believe that good psychological education inoculates learners against excessive stress, anxiety, and depression.

Teachers and parents can also obliquely guide the students to protect their own mental wellbeing by prompting them to get creative, be active, connect with others, and get enough sleep. Remember, not all students feel comfortable speaking to a teacher or opening up in their school or college and that’s OK; these students can get advice and help from their parents by coordinating with the teachers.

Covid-19 has accelerated the work of education providers to support mental wellbeing of their learners. All private and government run schools, colleges and universities should introduce mental health services. They should hold mental wellbeing sessions around sleep, study skills, positive mind set and staying connected, while targeting the most at-risk students. All private and government run schools, colleges and universities should adopt a mental health strategy.

In all educational institutions, academic and non-academic staff must receive mental health and trauma awareness training. These approaches will empower learners to develop coping strategies within the classroom and in their homes. Having said all the above detailed points, please remember it is important to differentiate between mental health and mental illness, to help the concerned students appropriately and effectively.

At the end, to help the academic and non-academic staff of the educational institutions, I would like to share wellbeing issues and warning signs to look for in the students to help them for mental health. Withdrawal from academic activities, being excessively happy or sad, being tired or lethargic, tearfulness, and physiological responses, such as heart palpitations or panic attacks can be alarming signs for teachers and parents to react appropriately.

Teachers and parents may look for outward signs in their students or children like including lack of care over personal appearance, frequent minor illnesses, sudden weight loss or gain, irritability, and withdrawal from social interaction. Additionally, to be more precise, we may observe the out-of-character behaviors, such as usually punctual learners arriving late and missing deadlines, or regular contributors to discussions appearing reluctant to join in.

I like to present a new idea here which is called Absenteeism and presenteeism – when learners attend but operate below their potential. Please observe this feature in your students and react and help them accordingly. Lastly, all educationists and parents should look out for extreme behaviors and displacement activities, such as alcohol or drug use, gambling, anti-social or inappropriate behavior, spending hours on social media, overreacting, food restriction, over-exercising, and self-harming.

These facts and figures and suggestions presented here are useful equally both in mainstream and Special Educational Needs education.