By Emily Anile
Tales from a secondary school mental health practitioner. My advice to parents of adolescents who got through the Victorian lockdowns, just.
In January this year many schools flung open their doors to the possibility of resuming education as experienced before the Covid-19 pandemic. Face to face, full time and stop gapped by quarterly school holiday breaks. The days of online learning were presumably behind us. As the state government has stuck to its promise of avoiding the closure of schools this year, we are left pondering- have teenagers found the pre pandemic sense of normalcy we were all hoping for? Or are we still managing the aftershocks of the last two years? Undoubtedly, it will take some time for the dust caused by COVID-19 restrictions to settle and reveal the true cost to the educational trajectory of our students. Taking the time to consider the current state of adolescent mental health in our communities is imperative to forging a new path of understanding when it comes to supporting their needs.
Secondary schools are well placed to respond to the mental health needs of its students by virtue of time students spend in the setting while developing connections to their teachers and their peers. According to the Covid-19 Roadmap to Recovery by Group of 8 Australia, schools are “uniquely placed to provide a safe and supportive space and to help emotional and social recovery post emergencies”.
Noticing different behaviours, fluctuating levels of interest in activities and changed interactions with peers are some of the ways mental health issues are identified early in school settings. Early identification is imperative to implementing the correct supports to assist adolescents in managing their mental health concerns.
There is often a lot of negative chatter regarding the mental health outcomes for our adolescents today. Compounded by concerns around increasing tech use and cyber safety, it’s no wonder parents can often feel overwhelmed about where to draw their attention first, and how to approach their concerns. It is a common scenario that plays out in families doing their best to leave no stone unturned in their approach to supporting their child. As a mental health practitioner in a local secondary school within the inner west, these are some of my bite size pieces of advice for parents.
The back-to-normal of resuming school isn’t always going to feel normal.
It is a common misconception in school communities that remaining open would be the balm to soothe the anxieties of home learning during the past two years. However, normalcy while exciting for some has presented as a challenge for others as they rebuild friendship groups that became misshapen during online engagement. Anxiety in adolescents can look like withdrawing from peer groups, changes to sleeping and eating habits, disinterest in conversations with significant people in their lives and agitation.
An important first step for family members and schools is to initiate connection and talk about the changes that are noticed. It can be easy to launch into ‘fix it’ mode however, try to refrain from this approach as your first step and focus on understanding the adolescent’s current experience. Don’t underestimate the power of empathy and allowing time to be heard in alleviating part of the burden.
Some emotional literacy has been lost and tools for self-regulation need some sharpening.
One of the biggest observations made within the wellbeing team I am part of is that year 7 and 8 cohorts appear to have missed some vital education about emotions, empathy, relating and self-regulation during their final years in primary school. By the end of term 2, year level coordinators identified that emotional literacy concepts needed to be embedded into everyday learning. The aim was to assist students to gain traction in this area of learning. Many of the concepts were rescaled to primary level understanding to allow students the opportunity to make up lost ground. Investing in this area of learning was also important to help adolescents regain footing in their ability to socialise and make friends.
School refusal may occur and schools are here to assist.
For many students, resuming full days of school after the online experience seemed a daunting task. Isolation requirements in place prior to October resulted in high teacher absenteeism while class merging became commonplace.
Speaking with the school about the difficulties adolescents are experiencing in attending is vital to developing a return to school plan that is tailored to their needs. GP’s and mental health services such as Headspace can also assist in supporting a positive return to school. Addressing the underlying causes and refraining from focusing on the behaviour is a good place to start.
The kids are alright: don’t forget to acknowledge the strengths.
And finally, we must acknowledge the resiliency displayed during uncertain times. Articulating the strengths we witness in our adolescents and acknowledging even the smallest of achievements can help bolster self-confidence. Adolescence is already known as an exceptionally challenging period of transformation without the multi-tiered impact of a global pandemic. We must take the time to remind our adolescents that everyone’s exit from the experience of the COVID-19 period will differ.
To parents and caregivers, your self-care is an equally important consideration while navigating the undulating terrain alongside our adolescents. You are not required to do this on your own and I would encourage you to reach out to your key school contact or wellbeing team for support. We need to resurrect the village mentality of support encompassing families, community and schools to build the armour necessary during times of uncertainty and change.