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The uncertainty of Covid-19: how to help your child's mental health

By Silja Turville
21 October 2020

It’s been an extraordinary year - and the restrictions placed upon daily life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have created uncertainty and difficulties for most – if not all – adults and children. For some people, there has also been the life-changing impact of bereavement or the trauma of a significant person in a child’s life being unwell.

And that’s not all. Many adults experiencing mental-health problems report that these issues started in their childhood or teenage years – so pre-existing mental-health challenges may exacerbate the current situation even more.

The good news is that there is a great deal that parents and schools can do to support young people with their mental health, alongside seeking help from professionals. Here’s what you need to know.

Addressing bereavement
The ill health or loss of a parent, close relative or a friend is an understandably stressful situation for anyone – let alone a young person for whom this grief can have long-standing impacts on their life, mental health and learning.

At certain stages, younger children can experience ‘magical thinking’ and so it should be stated clearly that there is nothing that the child has done that could have caused the situation. It is essential to provide coherent, accurate information about what’s going on and the subject of death in general, together with recognising the range and complexity of feelings that can arise – plus being sensitive to the fact that it can take some time to adjust to the loss.

In school this could be supported by an appropriate professional – making sure that the discussions about bereavement are in a suitably small and sympathetic group. It should be expected that children and young people will require many opportunities to discuss their feelings and it is important for schools – as well as the child’s family – to make it clear that there will be plenty of chances to explore and share their emotions.

It would be useful to know if there is a person in the school, a particular teacher or even a counsellor that the child can speak to if they feel that they need comfort and encouragement. There may also be other valuable opportunities to honour and remember the person, such as raising money for charity in their name or a memorial event. Best practice advice for schools can be found via the charity stem4’s website listed in the resources section below*.

Mental health
Being with other children is a key part of a child’s normal psychological development and there has been plenty of evidence over the last few months of the potential negative impact of losing the support network of their friends and teachers that they have within school. This means that children who were already struggling with their mental health may still be finding things tough and others may have, sadly, started to have mental-health difficulties.

The charity Young Minds** surveyed young people with a history of mental-health problems during the time that most pupils were out of school during June and July and the results showed that 80 per cent of them agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse, with 41 per cent stating that it had made their mental health much worse.

For some students with existing mental-health conditions, the requisite help has usually taken place in school and this has not always been able to continue during lockdown, and might not resume even as schools return. Young Minds reported that 31 per cent of those already receiving mental-health support were not able to continue to get the assistance that was provided before. We suggest parents seek to have this support re-established in some form if they possibly can – even if it has to be online with the school counsellor, for example.

Many people are feeling the immediate positive benefits of being back at school and this might counteract the feelings of isolation and anxiety that arose during lockdown. However, the prospect of further lockdowns could remain a concern and it can be helpful for parents and schools to talk this through with children. It’s perhaps best to not only discuss the ‘facts’ of how the pandemic and any future changes might look and work, but also to consider how this can feel and what options there are to address these feelings.

Parents and teachers can often provide the greatest support by modelling how to talk about feelings and anxieties, while explaining what they themselves do to manage tricky emotions. For example, they might mention how going running or chatting with a friend helps them feel better when they’re feeling down.

It is certainly beneficial to talk to children and young people about what kinds of resources they may have in their mental health ‘toolkit’ for when they feel low. This could include messaging a friend, spending time outside (when they can!) or watching a fun programme. The stem4 Youth Mental Health Day videos are a brilliant starting point for discussions in class - they focus on the charity’s theme to encourage building resilience: ‘Bounce not break’. Other resources for parents and schools are listed below.

Reluctant returners

It is clear that for some children, school is not an easy place to be and many parents have reported how their child has been a great deal happier outside of the school environment. Our experience is that this can represent a barometer for how well a child with additional requirements is being supported in their educational setting. Young Minds found that 11 per cent of the people they surveyed reported better mental health during lockdown – this could be due to such concerns as struggling with schoolwork or bullying.

We encourage parents to discuss with their child the reasons for their fears about going back to school and their experience as they return, so that they can try to understand what this might indicate about the help that the child could benefit from in school. Very often, for learners with additional SEND needs, the answers and solutions to the reluctance to return can be multifaceted and might require extra educational assistance, as well as support around anxiety. Stay focused on tackling each problem individually – starting with the biggest.

Catching up
Many independent schools have been able to offer full online programmes during the time away from the classroom and some schools have told us that they feel pupils are ahead of where they would normally be at this stage.

However, for others, especially younger children, online learning (where it was available) may not have been easy and likewise for those with concentration issues, it could have been very hard to engage with online learning.

We have seen that where students have been given tasks to complete with little interaction with their school, this has been a challenge – even for able pupils – resulting in some of them becoming demoralised and then not being able to complete their work.

If you feel that your child has fallen behind, raise this with the school and discuss what the options are and what the school is planning to do in order to address this. Of course, tutoring and extra support at school are potential options. In an ideal situation, all enhanced help would be provided in school and preferably in class.

However, for people with additional requirements who are struggling to manage with the support provided in school, this could be a trigger to look in more detail at the child’s needs and the assistance available to assess carefully what could be done to help.

It could make sense to reduce the pressure for GCSE students by liaising with the school about whether there is greater flexibility over course choices to remove subjects that are not essential, if at all possible, and to consider the overall number of GCSEs being taken. This would then give more time to focus on the remaining key subjects so that the pupil can achieve their potential in them.

Inevitably, the challenges from Covid-19 and its impact on mental health are likely to continue for some time. However, schools and families can make a big difference by enabling non-judgmental discussions to take place and seeking further professional support wherever it is needed.

Looking after a child or young person's mental health: NHS

* Resources for young people and parents regarding Covid-19, including how to provide support for bereavement:

**Young Minds' Survey
Young Minds Parents’ Helpline