Have you ever been to your GP and had them tell you they have no idea what your symptoms mean? It’s terrifying.
We put our trust in certain authority figures for all of our lives, deferring to them when things go awry. When what’s happening falls outside of even their expertise or experience – that’s when we panic.
It’s therefore little surprise that throughout this period of partial school closures, young people have reported feeling increased anxiety not just about the present, but at the prospect of returning to school for the new academic year. Parents aren’t sure whether sending their children back is safe. Teachers aren’t being given sufficient training and resources to oversee the ‘new normal’. The government remain adamant that all will be fine, but their track record on handling the coronavirus crisis doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
With adults mired in confusion, frustration and division, it’s little wonder that young people feel so anxious. A large number of children will be returning to school affected by trauma and bereavement. Those with previously mild to moderate mental health issues will have likely seen an increase in the severity of their symptoms. The exact statistics aren’t yet available as I write, but youth-facing mental health charities have reported a huge increase in demand for their services.
Teachers can’t be expected to shoulder the burdens caused by all this single-handedly, but there are some steps that can be taken to reduce students’ anxiety upon their return to school.
1. Acknowledge the elephant in the room
Don’t try to just soldier on as normal. With assemblies probably not an option owing to social distancing, make sure each pupil hears what measures the school has taken to ensure everyone’s safety, and why it’s important to follow them.
2. Brief your colleagues
For the above to actually happen, everyone needs to be on the same page. Young people will feel more supported when the messages they receive from the adults around them are consistent.
3. Invite feedback
However hard I research and plan something, a young person will always be able to find an angle on it I hadn’t considered. During those first few weeks, invite feedback from students on how they’re finding things and ask if there’s anything more that can be done to support them.
4. Focus on the ‘controllables’
Encourage the students (and your colleagues) to list everything that’s causing them anxiety, divided into three columns – ‘Issues I can control’; ‘Issues I can solve with someone else’s help’; and ‘Issues I have no power over.’ Encourage them to focus their energies on the first two columns and prioritise the lists according to ease and urgency.
5. Find out who can help
You may need to signpost students to external services, but CAMHS are more stretched than ever and waiting lists remain long. There’s an app called the Hub of Hope (hubofhope.co.uk), which will generate a list of non-NHS mental health support services within your postcode. You can also visit natashadevon.com/advice-support for a list of charities and other organisations that can provide safe support and advice.
6. Take special care of your black pupils
This year has also seen widespread protests over racial injustice, particularly in relation to black people’s treatment by the police. The prevalence of images and videos on social media showing police brutality will be especially traumatic for black pupils. Glitch (fixtheglitch.org) is a charity that promotes digital self-care and can provide advice on how to manage this.
Black pupils might also feel nervous about how they’re perceived by peers of other ethnicities. Be mindful of this, especially if you choose to debate recent events in the classroom. Ensure black pupils always feel welcome and safe.
7. Remember your own wellbeing
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Supporting pupils with additional mental health needs requires you to look after your own. Self-care – yoga, meditation and such – is great, but as Andrew Cowley points out in his brilliant book The Wellbeing Toolkit, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘self-care’ aren’t the same thing. To promote staff wellbeing, there must be open communication with SLTs and opportunities for staff to voice concerns about workload without judgment. There also needs to be flexibility and willingness to change, if the current systems aren’t working.
Natasha Devon MBE is a campaigner who has spent the past decade visiting an average of three schools per week throughout the world, delivering talks and conducting research on mental health and related issues. To find out more, visit natashadevon.com or follow @_NatashaDevon; her book Yes You Can: Ace Your Exams Without Losing Your Mind is available to pre-order now from Pan Macmillan
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