For everyone Staying up in lockdown: Students and mental health

The mental health of students is a priority for school staff as we continue to wade through endless lockdowns. Thankfully, there are many places providing valuable advice and support.

It’s been a heck of a year for all Australians. But school students have done it particularly tough through multiple lockdowns, separated from their mates and teachers, plus all those cancelled sports events, drama classes and formals.
“Every young person in Australia is feeling impacted,” says Kristen Douglas, head of schools at youth mental health support service Headspace. “But particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, we’re seeing increased levels of vulnerability and risk.”

If students are already in a vulnerable group – be that LGBTIQA+ young people navigating their sexuality or gender identity, kids in out-of-home care, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds – lockdown has exacerbated everything.

“Our mental health services are seeing a huge surge in demand, and there are two ways to look at it,” Kristen says. “Clearly kids are really in distress and they’re reaching out. In some ways, though, I think that’s actually really awesome. That’s driving them towards services and towards help-seeking.”

Of course, that throws up staffing and funding issues for services like Headspace, but Kristen remains positive. “What we’re trying to do is drive the mental health literacy skills up of educators, of parents and of kids themselves, so there’s a bit more of a buffer.”

“Students complain of a whole range of symptoms, including stomach aches and headaches, but in most cases, we know it’s anxiety related.”

It takes a village

Belinda Karlson, acting principal of Gladstone Views Primary School, is constantly impressed by the fortitude of her students, but repeated lockdowns have taken their toll. They have been unusually “testing times this year because of the unknown,” says Belinda.

When the kids came back from Melbourne’s fifth lockdown, their faces said it all. “They wanted to know exactly how long they’re back for,” she says.

Of course, none of us can predict if or when the next lockdown will happen. Within a week of speaking, Melbourne was already into its sixth stretch after an outbreak that surfaced so cruelly on the first ‘doughnut day’ in a long time. What Belinda and others like her can do is put in place processes and support systems to help their students ride through it.

“It’s about helping build resilience and giving the whole school community as much encouragement as possible,” she says. “We’ve incorporated a lot of social and emotional learning into the teaching and learning component.”

There’s been a marked uptick in first aid room attendance at Gladstone, Belinda says. “At times it feels like triage. Students complain of a whole range of symptoms, including stomach aches and headaches, but in most cases, we know it’s anxiety related. These kids might not verbally tell us what they’re anxious about, but the physical symptoms are the key triggers for us to go, ‘OK, this is something that we really need to focus on’, so we work with the parents to come up with support plans.”

Belinda reached out to community support organisations like Banksia Gardens for advice on coping strategies. One great bit of feedback was a recommendation to incorporate more physical activity.

“Because our students were missing out on that traditional Friday inter-school sport and their daily activities, we found they were becoming quite tired and unmotivated,” Belinda says. “Last year, students weren’t even allowed to go to playgrounds or skate parks, and that had a big impact on their physical and emotional health and wellbeing.”

During lockdown, Belinda and her staff swung into action to provide particular on-site support for at-risk students, including those in out-of-home care, from refugee backgrounds and other English as an Additional Language communities, as well as those with disabilities and with severe behavioural concerns.

The school’s valiant education support staff have been a great help, Belinda says. “It’s a catch-22 scenario, however, because we have quite a few kids on-site who we’ve red-flagged and know need to be there, but you’re also trying to limit the amount of staff on site.”

The pandemic has also had a huge impact on the parent community too. “We’ve been communicating with them in various ways, including through Compass, by phone and newsletters,” Belinda says. “We actually pride ourselves on having such positive community spirit. It makes such a huge difference. We care for one another. There’s a lot of respect here.”

That respect is shared by the kids. “I walk around the yard during recess or lunch and the kids stop me and say, ‘How are you, Miss Carlson?’ They really want to know how you are going and do the check-ins with me.”

“A lot of students speak about having no privacy in the house because everyone’s at home. So, all eyes and ears are on them. That does impact them being able to get any sort of wellbeing support on a deeper level.”

Seen and heard

We also spoke to a student wellbeing social worker* who assists students from families with trauma backgrounds, at primary and secondary school level. She helps students navigate issues including family violence, child protection, out of home care and a range of mental health challenges. “One issue that crops up quite a bit is that of self-harm,” she says.

Like Belinda, a lot of her work involves coordinating with other support services, including referrals to Headspace and the Royal Children’s Hospital. Switching to remote learning has had a huge affect on student wellbeing, and how she does her job. “A lot of students speak about having no privacy in the house because everyone’s at home. So, all eyes and ears are on them. That does affect their ability to get any sort of wellbeing support on a deeper level.”
The emphasis has been on phone counselling over video sessions, but you lose insights this way. “I can only go by their voice. I can’t see body language or anything else.”

She’s had to adapt. “Before I call students, I’ll send them a private message saying that if there’s anything they want to say, but can’t, we can use the chat function on Microsoft Teams to make it a bit more of a private space.”

While the most vulnerable students are encouraged to attend on-site, not everyone does, for a variety of reasons. Another challenge she faces is that it’s not always easy to connect students with disability to NDIS funding. “So, a lot of students aren’t receiving the support they need.”

That can come down to difficulty providing supporting documentation, to language barriers, and internet connectivity issues further exacerbated by lockdowns, with everyone on remote work/learning. Competing priorities, especially when there are other socio-economic pressures at play, can make securing support a deeply stressful scenario in itself. But she works hard to make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks. “You have to.”

Kristen remains confident that great examples of peer-to-peer support mean that even the most at-risk younger people are reaching out for help more than ever before. It’s all about supplying practical advice, she says, pointing to campaigns like the National Mental Health Commission’s #ChatStarter campaign. “It’s specifically targeted at young people with helpful tips on how to have a conversation [about mental health].”

It’s normal to feel stressed about COVID-19, Kristen says. It’s all about how kids (and grown-ups) deal with that stress. “Rather than fast-track kids out of distress, actually we should just sit with them and listen. Tell them it’s OK to be a little bit not OK. Tell them there are things we can do to move through this dark space and get to the other space.”

*Names withheld by request.

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