For some students the year of COVID-19 will be remembered for the time spent at home and the ‘fun’ break from the way school normally operates. But for many others it will be a year that they would rather forget, impacting on their day-to-day life, their mental health and social connectedness with their peers and their teachers.
Some Alarming Statistics
A recent report in The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the youth mental health challenges many students have faced during lockdown and are continuing to deal with. The report stated that in March, Kids Helpline received over 9000 calls a week or one every minute. In mid-April, UNICEF Australia surveyed over 1000 young people aged 13 to 17 years on how COVID-19 was impacting them. The report, titled “Living in Limbo”, found that almost half of the young people surveyed said that COVID-19 had increased their stress and anxiety. It said: “Australia’s young people have been cut off from social support networks, must complete major education milestones online, and are also impacted by job losses, either themselves or their parents and carers. All of this is taking a toll on their mental health and their hope for the future.”
The survey showed a decline in young people’s ability to cope since the beginning of 2020. Nearly all young people said that their education had been disrupted or had stopped. Fewer than 40 per cent of those surveyed had a good idea of how to access psychological support services and around 25 per cent felt isolated and unsure about support options.
Common Stress and Stressors Experienced by Students
A recent ABC News article on the stress experienced by students as a result of COVID-19 highlighted:
- increased worries about the future and increased anxiety due to changes to learning and assessments
- concern and anxiety that marks will be below their expectations due to the disruption to normal learning
- increased suicidal thoughts and instances of self-harm
- much greater demand for community support services for young people, especially students under 16 who are not feeling safe at home.
Some of the stressors for students have included:
- disruptions to study including changes to assessments and study patterns
- anxiety over the impact on school results, especially on ATAR scores and future study plans
- anxiety for their future including post school study and employment prospects due to the economic downturn
- lack of regular contact with friends
- lack of daily school structures and routines
- unhealthy and unsafe home environments
- loss or drop in family income
- ceasing social and sporting activities outside of school and cessation of school sport and extra-curricular activities.
It is also important to note that schools need to be wary of xenophobic or other types of bullying targeted towards students of Asian origin or students who simply have a cold (and some COVID-19 symptoms). There is no doubt that students who may have been bullied earlier in the year when COVID-19 first became an issue may be fearing similar taunts and bullying now that they are returning to their classrooms.
Warning Signs of Mental Health Issues
Healthdirect lists nine signs indicating a good reason to seek more information about a student’s mental health:
- Feeling anxious or worried – while we all get worried from time to time, particularly during the pandemic, if it is constant and it interferes all the time, it could be the sign of a mental health issue. Other symptoms of anxiety may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headache, restlessness, diarrhoea or a racing mind
- Feeling depressed or unhappy – signs include losing interest in things, lacking motivation and energy or being teary all the time
- Emotional outbursts
- Sleep problems
- Weight or appetite changes
- Being quiet or withdrawn
- Substance abuse
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Change in behaviour or feelings - if something doesn’t seem ‘quite right’, it’s important to start the conversation about getting help.
Some Risks to Consider
In our article “Returning to ‘Normal’ School Operations: Key Things to Consider” we suggested issues that schools may wish to consider as they return to the ‘new normal’ in the rapidly reducing COVID-19 environment, including risk controls. Some of the risks specifically associated with students’ mental health include failure to:
- establish and effectively implement a comprehensive suite of policies and procedures designed to protect students from foreseeable risks of harm to meet its student duty of care obligations in dealing with student welfare and mental health
- effectively implement monitoring and support services for students suffering from anxiety and stress and related mental health issues
- provide sufficient support and assistance to students who are concerned for their safety and wellbeing at home
- provide a range of school programs and initiatives to support all students in dealing with the stresses and anxieties associated with COVID-19 disruptions to their learning.
Some Risk Control Measures
Many students will need close monitoring and extra care during this time. Schools will need to increase their assistance to students and perhaps adjust their emphasis from academics to greater levels of support and care for students showing signs of stress and anxiety. This might come in the form of additional student counselling and support services and other activities and programs aimed at reducing stress and anxiety.
Schools should also consider planning for specific scenarios as part of their risk management strategy. For example, students may experience increased anxiety and stress where:
- a school must send all students home for a period due to a positive COVID-19 test result at the school. For some students where they have had close contact with the person that tested positive, they may be required to stay away from school for a period of isolation. The possibility of starting regular face to face learning and important social interactions with their peers and teachers, and then having to stop again, will be very difficult for some students
- fixed events and celebrations are cancelled
- students’ circumstances at home may change, such as a parent or carer losing all or part of their income.
Healthdirect provides a comprehensive list of mental health professionals and services that are available to assist.
In summary, readers may recall our February 2020 article regarding students returning to school following the bushfires of the preceding months. This return following the periods of social isolation is not so different. Once again, you and your staff may be faced with questions such as “Is our school safe?” or “What do I say to Jack, who lost his Grandma?”.
Your students, and their parents, will want to be assured that the children will be cared for at school, away from their homes and their parents. Having well known and valid controls to deal with the risks associated with student mental health issues will certainly alleviate some of the uncertainty and angst that is so common in many school communities at present.
Jonathan is a Principal Consultant working with CompliSpace education clients. He has more than 10 years experience in the school sector as a teacher, compliance and legal adviser and more recently as a Business Manager. Jonathan has been a solicitor for nearly 30 years and worked in both private practice and community legal centres.
Karen is a Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. Karen recently completed three years working at the NSW Ombudsman and the Office of the Children’s Guardian as a Senior Investigator in employment related child protection. Karen also spent three years at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as a Senior Legal and Policy Officer and was a key contributor to the “Redress and Civil Litigation” and “Criminal Justice” reports. Karen has worked as a commercial litigation lawyer both in the private and public sector and holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts/Law (Hons).