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In 2020 our schools need R U OK? Day more than ever: Opinion

In 2020, the issue of mental health is high on the agenda for schools around the country. With a global pandemic adding a large dose of extra anxiety into the lives of our students and staff alike, talking about our emotions and asking R U OK? is more vital than ever before.

With more families living, working and learning from home, there’s no denying that the first half of this year has been a struggle for many Australians of all ages.

Initial research from the Australian Insitute of Family Studies found that almost half (43 per cent) of respondents reported they or their partner had lost employment or experienced reduced hours and wages, while 40 per cent of adults now always or often 'actively' care for children during work.

There’s no doubt that these additional factors are adding to an already worrying outlook for the mental health of our kids. In 2016, the Black Dog Institute found that one in four 15 to 19-year-olds in Australia met the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness. The top three issues of concern were coping with stress, school or study problems and depression. On top of that, suicide remains the leading cause of death among people aged 15–24.

While it’s too soon for any large-scale research on how the coronavirus outbreak will impact our children in the long-term, it’s safe to say that there’s a good chance existing mental health issues could be exacerbated by the pandemic.

How educators can help

Consider explaining to students what to do with those emotions and how to ask for help. In order to help with this, educators should be able to demonstrate and encourage a good emotional vocabulary so when the time is right, they are able to express what they are feeling.

For example, “He/she did this, so I did this,” might be modified to, “He/she did this and I felt angry, so I did this.” If children can identify their emotions, then you can help them find a constructive way to resolve or manage those emotions. This is especially important in these challenging times, when it’s all too easy for kids to shut down and revert to hiding behind their screens and their bedroom doors.

If students can identify times when they feel stressed or frustrated, then they can start to implement self-managing techniques or help-seeking behaviours. These same skills translate to every aspect of life, including their future relationships.

Don’t add to the pressure

Remember that no matter how much pressure you’re feeling about maintaining your class or school’s results throughout the pandemic, try your hardest not to pass that pressure onto your students.

Instead, encourage self-reflection by asking them questions like, “How did you go?”, “How can you improve?”, and “Do you know what you need to do next time?” Students give pretty honest responses and are often fair judges. Then you can work with them to pinpoint the specific areas that need development, and give them the tools they need to improve, without piling on the pressure.

Get other students to help

At Waverley, we put an emphasis on vertical interaction – getting older boys to communicate and befriend the younger ones – which can help with a whole range of issues. Often, the older boys have already experienced many of the challenges that the young ones are facing, and have the emotional maturity to engage in open, honest conversations with them.

Signs like withdrawal from conversations or acting differently are all things to encourage your students to look out for in one another. Young boys, in particular, can be unaware of their feelings and don't know how to identify them, let alone process them. This can make sharing and opening up difficult, but not impossible.

Teach them to use technology safely

The 2020 pandemic has made our children’s relationship with technology even more complex – particularly if your school is located in an area that remains under strict lockdown. Ironically, technology and social media can make our children feel even more isolated, even platforms created under the guise of ‘connection’ and building ‘friends’.

However, video calls and virtual face-to-face interactions are still better than a like or a comment on a social media post and can help make your students feel more connected to their peers – even if they’re not physically in the classroom. Music and languages are all great subjects to encourage interaction and connection, even if it has to be through a screen for now.

R U OK? Day is an important time to reflect on our own attitudes to mental health, and to help our pupils do the same. Sometimes all it takes is asking one simple question: R U OK?

Graham Leddie is Principal at Waverley College, an independent, non-selective Catholic day school for boys.

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