As schools reopen, are our teachers equipped to deal with trauma and mental health issues among children caused by COVID-19?
Regardless of whether students return to school in person or via distance learning, education leaders and policymakers across the globe must equip schools to address the social, emotional, and behavioral effects of the ongoing pandemic. To address these issues, many policymakers are turning to school-based mental health services as a key strategy for supporting student wellness. Although mental health services are a critical, often underfunded element of supporting the needs of students particularly those who are experiencing trauma. To address this issue, education leaders take a comprehensive approach that goes beyond mental health services as schools reopen.
Mental health treatment is most effective when delivered within a school wide, coordinated approach to supporting wellness. Several clinical interventions—delivered by school mental health professionals—have been demonstrated to be effective, including programs like Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for trauma in schools (CBITS), which has been adapted to meet the needs of diverse student populations.
While mental health services are a critical resource for students, it seems that India has ignored this aspect because, except for a few civil society organisations, neither educational leaders nor policy makers talk on this issue despite India being the world’s ‘most depressed country’. Moreover, between 1990 to 2017, one in seven people from India have suffered from mental illness ranging from depression and anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the country is under a mental health epidemic.
The first and foremost reason for India to lose its mental health is the lack of awareness and sensitivity about the issue. There is a big stigma around people suffering from any kind of mental health issues. They are often tagged as ‘lunatics’ by society. This leads to a vicious cycle of shame, suffering and isolation of the patients. Also, there is a serious shortage of mental healthcare workforce in India. According to WHO, in 2011, there were 0·301 psychiatrists and 0·047 psychologists for every 100,000 patients suffering from a mental health disorder in India. These issues aggravate the scale of the problem and need immediate redressal. This is the right time for India to include mental health in the school curriculum and make it basic human rights.
While the challenges that schools face are daunting, education leaders may consider some of the following strategies to support mental health and address trauma as they prepare to reopen:
Educate all school staff about trauma and mental health.
Whether schools open in person or with some aspect of distance learning, staff will likely interact with students experiencing heightened stress and anxiety and some experiencing symptoms of trauma. While educators should not be expected to replace trained mental health professionals, they should be aware of common causes of trauma and mental health challenges, and be able to recognize signs of distress.
Acknowledge that not all communities have experienced the pandemic in the same way.
Minority, Dalit and Adivasi communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to the longstanding impact of systemic discrimination in the health, education, and justice sectors. Many students and staff may also be dealing with the impact of communalization of the COVID-19 which affects their mental wellbeing more than the pandemic.
Ensure that all staff know how to connect students to mental health services.
It is important that all school staff have a clear understanding of the process for referring students. Schools should establish relationships with community-based mental health providers and develop a system for making referrals. It is particularly important to ensure that students and their families have access to culturally and linguistically appropriate treatment.
Equip school staff with skills to foster safe and supportive learning environments.
Addressing mental health and trauma requires a coordinated effort across the entire school. High-quality social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula can be a great resource to foster relationships and teach important coping skills. Many SEL developers have produced guidance and activities for implementing SEL through online platforms. Schools should also consider implementing trauma-specific interventions.
Pay attention to the mental health needs of school staff.
Staff members themselves may have experienced some level of personal adversity or trauma due to the pandemic—including concerns about their health which can be exacerbated by the strains of supporting students experiencing stress. Schools should offer staff resources that support their own wellness especially related to trauma.