Our schools are facing a mental well-being crisis – we need to plan now to avert it.

My 15 year old daughter came into my home office on Sunday evening to talk to me. Not an entirely unusual event (not run of the mill either!), but what she said set a train of thoughts in process and motivated me to write my first blog in a while: “Please don’t go into work tomorrow Dad, I don’t want Mum to get the Corona Virus and die.”

This may seem a rather irrational statement until you realise that my wife is shielding. Now restrictions were easing a little, we agreed I could go into work for the day and with carefully planned strict social distancing with my team, the plans were all set. What I hadn’t bargained on was a worried daughters question, signalling her anxiety and worry.

I have noticed the impact of lockdown on all four of my children in a pretty supportive home environment. There have been many positives but also many challenges. Balancing working from home for a Head teacher and a GP with home schooling is difficult. I have definitely noticed more emotional outbursts and signs of anxiety, disrupted sleep patterns and worry for all of the family. As we contemplate students returning to school we face a crisis. Not only will our young people have significant deficits in their learning, they will also have to cope with the emotional after effects of lockdown. Lockdown is going to make waves ripple through all of our lives for some time to come, but these are going to overwhelm some of our school children if we don’t equip them properly.

A word of caution here though. As John Tomsett (@johntomsett) points out in his excellent book: This much I know about mind over matter it is important that those writing in this field do so responsibly:

“I have no doubt that the pressures of modern life are impacting negatively upon our children…     …conflating mental health problems and mental illness means, ultimately, that ‘nobody is interested in the chronically mentally ill” (Tomsett, 2017)

I am conscious that most of the students in my school will get through this disruption in their lives. Take Year 11 for example, missing GCSEs, the prom and the final term of high school will have been incredibly stressful and this will have impacted their current mental health, but with love and support most will recover and will hopefully avoid becoming mentally ill.

The key for most of our young people in our schools is to “create a culture which better prepares our children and young people for the life challenges facing them” (Tomsett, 2017).  That needs to be our first consideration when students return. They need a culture of love and support to reassure them. They need to feel able to verbalise their worries and concerns and they need reassuring that as school leaders and teachers we’ve got this and we will get through it together. Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) pointed out in a recent blog,

“Give them that sense that things are under control and that, whatever anxieties they have or problems they’ve experienced, there’s a path ahead that is clear, tangible in the form of the information you provide.” (Sherrington, 2020)

For our most vulnerable students we have to plan more carefully. Not only will the gap in their learning have increased, see EEF guidance report here (EEF, 2020), they have faced prolonged exposure to a range of trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) at home, (for an excellent summary of the impacts of ACEs on the developing brain watch Doctor Nadine Burke Harris TED talk here). In an open letter to Gavin Williamson, 100 specialists in psychology, neuroscience and mental health, (you can read the letter here) warn that isolation and a lack of face to face contact is harming already vulnerable young people. For these students at our academy, school is an escape from the trauma they face. It provides routine, love and support from adults and peers who care, a hot meal and for many access to counselling and therapeutic support. In lockdown we have worked hard to mirror this provision but this can’t replace the sanctuary and help of regular school and it is these students who risk being overwhelmed.

So this is a call to action for education colleagues. We have to plan ahead for our most vulnerable students and we need significant resources and help from government to put these plans in place. I am asking fellow education colleagues to support a campaign started by mental health campaigner Sir Norman Lamb and consultant clinical psychologist Warren Larkin for a cross sector “Resilience Task Force” to be set up, with the correct resources and funding to plan a response to the health and wellbeing challenges society will face as a results of this pandemic. You can find more information here. Spread the word, there is a crisis around the corner and we need to be prepared and ready.

Bibliography

EEF. (2020, June 3rd). Rapid Evidence Assessment: Impact of school closures on the attainment gap. Retrieved from Education Endowment Foundation: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/REA_-_Impact_of_school_closures_on_the_attainment_gap_summary.pdf

Sherrington, T. (2020, May 29th). Re-establishing teaching routines. Retrieved from teacherhead: https://teacherhead.com/2020/05/29/re-establishing-teaching-routines/

Tomsett, J. (2017). This much I know about mind over matter. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.

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