How Can We Address Declining Student Mental Health?

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Student mental health. It’s now more important than ever that we re-assess the effectiveness of broad-brush advice and re-think and re-focus on how we cultivate, develop and maintain resilience in our communities.

A United Nations report suggests that children are showing high degrees of COVID-19 related psychological distress. The US-based 2020 research on 18-44-year olds shows that those with children are showing more significant increases in mental distress than those without.

Families across the globe are living in unprecedented times. The psychological effects of isolation and social distancing mean our children are facing increasing levels of worry, anxiety and fear. Children are no longer experiencing their regular daily school routines. They have little opportunity to be with friends or access emotional support or help outside of their immediate family unit. In turn, as parents, we face our own worries; worries over our children’s wellbeing, worries over financial/job security and the constant pressure to adapt and perform at work.

To better support families through COVID-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said children may be more irritable and angry during this difficult time. The article offers vague ‘strategies’ for parents, such as:

  • give young people the love and attention to resolve their fears
  • be honest, and explain what is happening
  • find ways in which they can express themselves
  • manage your own stressors, so they can be modelled by your children

It goes on to offer Global Authorities advice on how ‘student mental health and psycho-social support services should be in place’ to ensure help is available if needed.

Is it me, or are any other parents feeling bewildered and left thinking ‘this is easier said than done?’

The YoungMinds blog: ‘What to do if you’re anxious about coronavirus’ is written specifically for young people and reinforces the advice given by WHO, urging young people to:

  • talk to someone about how you are feeling
  • remind yourself that there are practical things you can do
  • keep a regular routine

I asked my teenage daughter about this advice, and her response was very similar to mine – 'easier said than done!'

As a Resilience Expert, I then extended my research focus on workplace support, with the assumption that a significant proportion of workers are also parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage on ‘Worker Safety & Support,’ highlights how fear and anxiety around COVID-19 can be overwhelming for workers and offers ‘tips to build resilience and manage job stress’ such as:

  • communicate with co-workers
  • remind yourself that everyone is in an unusual situation
  • keep a regular sleep schedule
  • do things you enjoy outside work hours
  • and gives contact links to suicide prevention helplines and domestic violence hotlines.

Again, is it me or is this really enough?

As a working parent I am genuinely struggling to see how this vague and broad-brush advice leaves me with anything other than more questions. Current COVID-19 research in China has shown that 53% of respondents rated the psychological impact of COVID-19 as either severe or moderate, with associated links to stress and reduced sleep quality. 

How then are we supposed to easily ‘keep a regular sleep schedule?’ Also, if there are serious concerns over suicide, why are the ‘powers that be’ not focusing more on highlighting practical ways to boost psychological safety? Ways to build stronger relationships, so people don’t feel so isolated and have the skills to help them through all this uncertainty.

The problem is that we've never taught people how to adapt through uncertainty and change.

It’s why this advice creates more questions than answers – what if you can’t find the words to describe how you feel or even why you feel a certain way? What if you want to communicate with your children, but you can’t seem to get through to them? What if you know it’s an unusual situation, but you don’t have the mental, emotional and social skills to navigate through it? 

As parents is it really as easy as ‘giving young people the love and attention needed to resolve their fears?’ How can we guide young people to ‘find ways to better express themselves?’ And when they do, how can we make sure we react positively and productively and avoid arguments?

In recent years, 'resilience' has definitely become a buzzword.

Talk to most schools and workplaces and they will tell you they are developing it in their students/workers, traditionally through wellbeing programmes, yoga, mindfulness and stress-management techniques. Given the fact that student mental health issues are exponentially increasing across both the student and adult population, are we misunderstanding how we develop resilience and thus positive mental health in our workplace and future generations?

The power and value of 'resilience' has been misinterpreted.

True ‘resilience’ involves understanding yourself, your thinking, emotions and behaviours and being able to confidently navigate problems and uncertainty. The reality is that it’s a skillset. It enables you to have stronger and more trusting relationships at work and with your children and be able to effectively navigate problems, setbacks and challenges.

Building emotional, mental and social capacity does not start with vague advice or links to suicide helplines. Its why parents are left feeling like they don’t know how to support their children and why children find it difficult to express how and what they feel or need. It’s why it’s simply not enough to just ‘remind yourself that everyone is in an unusual situation.’

Resilience as a skillset is something we don’t actually teach young people, parents or the working population. I know this because we’ve worked with 1000’s of people from all walks of life; parents, teachers, students, NHS professionals, Emergency Services and even people in large global organisations. They all say the same thing ‘I wish I had been taught these skills at school.’

Instead, the real value of resilience is misinterpreted by commonly investing in yoga, mindfulness and stress-management techniques that focus predominantly on enabling the construction of ‘buffers’ within the individual in isolation, to better manage stress and mental health challenges internally. 

The key message is that we are inadvertently assigning the responsibility of ‘mental health’ on to the student, parent or worker, instead of addressing mental health as a collective community in which we all have the skills to proactively communicate, support and adapt through the roller-coaster we call life.

We are tackling student mental health advice and support the wrong way and here's why

The current advice and support for student mental health is based on the fundamental assumption that as a family unit, school community or workplace, we already have the skills necessary to navigate the complexities of life and the challenges faced through COVID-19.

It’s a fundamental assumption that as a community, we’ve got wrong. If we don’t know we are struggling until it’s too late, or we can’t find the words to describe how we feel or even what it is about a situation that makes us feel a certain way, how can we take action or ask for help?

Could 'resilience' be the missing piece in the mental health jigsaw?

Resilience is not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s fundamental. It’s what enables you to effectively have difficult conversations, manage change, uncertainty and setbacks. It’s also the very thing that enables you to enjoy healthy relationships, adapt and go from good to great.

Given the risks associated with COVID-19 and poor mental health, it’s undoubtedly time to redefine how we develop resilience in the community so we can adapt and thrive not only as individuals but together. Building resilience and positive mental health in children, means we need to build the same capacity in the support network around them. A process in which everyone can affect more control over their thinking, emotions and behaviours, the quality of their relationships and possess the mechanisms to adapt and thrive.

Mental health and low levels of resilience is a community problem long before it becomes a clinical one.

What if we could use the COVID-19 pandemic as a new start? One where we build ‘true’ emotional, mental and social resilience so we can begin to future proof parents, the school community and the workplace. What if we could find a happier, more inclusive and collective way to empower people to find their own solutions and grow together? Become better at managing uncertainty and difficult relationships together? What if we could better support people to become more emotionally, mentally and socially resilient so we can start to tackle mental health issues as a community?

It’s fair to say that COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. It’s highlighted the importance of adaption both economically and psychologically. It’s resilience in a nutshell, and without it, we simply cannot move forward. Developing resilience is not something we just do to ‘fix’ something, it’s the very mechanism in which the quality of our lives and mental health are built upon.

In a nutshell, developing resilience is the foundation in which we can start to invest in a robust platform for adapting through adversity. Building resilience acts as a preventative mechanism in which people can weather the storm of uncertainty and continue to grow and adapt together.

It’s now more important than ever that we re-assess the effectiveness of broad-brush advice and re-think and re-focus on how we cultivate, develop and maintain resilience in our communities. Taking a resilience approach would not only directly address poor mental health but also enable our communities to stay healthy, solution-focused and proactive in the face of uncertainty.

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