As we emerge from the first two years of the pandemic, it is apparent that many features of the pandemic and the measures implemented to deal with it have had a negative effect on the mental health of many young people. Pre-pandemic, there had already been a clear and significant increase in young people reporting that they were experiencing problems with their mental health along with a growing recognition of mental health issues by institutions, not least amongst these schools and colleges.

Among the factors which have exacerbated this emerging mental health crisis over the last two years are social isolation, examination and grade anxiety, lack of opportunities for socialization, overall anxiety, uncertainty and the feeling of operating in a void. Among more serious cases, students will have suffered serious illness within their families and even bereavement. There may be an overwhelming sense of loss and grief among some students and staff. For some students these issues, or underlying vulnerabilities which may lead to these issues, have always been there. What is evident now is that the number of students experiencing difficulties with maintaining good mental health consistently has grown. Of course, a large number of staff and students will have remained resilient and their coping strategies will have served them well. However, there is also an increasing awareness that anyone, at any time, can feel the strain. From my own perspective, during the Spring Term and at the onset of the Summer Term of this academic year, I have witnessed increased anxiety particularly with regard to final examinations, with this year being the first time that some of our students will have sat examinations in a formal context. Anxieties about students’ academic futures in general have also been augmented.

A related issue is that of the mental well-being of educational professionals, many of whom have borne the brunt of increased workloads, getting to grips with new technologies, lone working for lengthy periods of time, and dealing with the unknown and increased responsibilities for areas in which they may have felt unprepared, such as the alternative assessment arrangements of Centre Assessed Grades and Teacher Assessed Grades. Just as students’ well-being may have been compromised by a feeling of a loss of control and heightened uncertainty, the same may have been felt by some educators. For teachers, educators, managers and leaders, it sometimes feels as though there is a seemingly ever-increasing perceived need to be available at all times; for some, this need seemed to increase even more sharply during the pandemic.

There will be many success stories. It is incredibly rewarding for teachers when they witness students’ success and happiness at the end of their school and college studies, especially if these students happen to have experienced and overcome difficulties earlier in their school career. For schools and colleges to be successful in this regard, it is firstly very important to be receptive to concerns and alert to issues. Effective training and good communication about the issues will lead to this. Rather than just reacting to specific instances as and when they arise, schools and colleges are likely to be more successful overall and in the long term if they are proactive in promoting good mental health for all. For example, workshops and seminars on promoting a healthy work/life balance, healthy eating, regular exercise and sound sleeping patterns are likely to have a positive impact on the mental health of a school or college community, as well as on individuals. Forging a strong college community is also very important. This can be achieved by forging a strong sense of identity, whereby a college can play the role of a supportive family. Some CIFE colleges, for example, are small enough to convey a very real sense of this, but this can of course also be achieved in larger institutions, with the right approach. The important thing is for students and staff to feel safe, supported and valued. Strong pastoral support is key to this and is a salient feature of most, if not all, CIFE colleges. Many CIFE colleges will have a structure of Directors of Studies or Personal Tutors, members of staff whose role is to provide excellent pastoral care. Other schools will have a similar pastoral structure although the nomenclature of form teachers and Heads of Year may be different. What is crucial is that students feel they can talk to their pastoral mentors as a first port of call if they are experiencing anxiety or distress and that these pastoral mentors are well briefed on strategies to promote well-being.

With regard to ancillary staff, teachers, educational managers and leaders, it is of the utmost importance that an environment is created and fostered whereby members of staff feel that they can share their concerns freely and constructively to their line managers. This should be encouraged and enabled. Although, understandably, there may be competing demands on budgets as schools attempt to plug gaps in knowledge and skills which in many cases have widened over the last two years, if resources allow appropriate counselling for staff and students could be considered. Many CIFE colleges already make judicious use of counselling. Even in schools and colleges which are in more straitened circumstances, often as a result of the pandemic, free online well-being and mindfulness services could be signposted and the use of these encouraged. The proactive promotion of good mental health should be highlighted as prevention is frequently better than cure.

Clearly, there will be some mental health conditions which are beyond the knowledge, expertise and scope of many teachers and educational leaders, and mental health professionals such as those in CAMSH are best placed to deal with these; this has always been the case. What is needed is timely recognition that other bodies need to be involved and that there is subsequent, effective engagement with these bodies, families and the young people themselves. For schools and colleges, this could be as simple as being facilitating, flexible and friendly when therapy sessions and case meetings are being arranged.

All in all, an awareness of the issues, a willingness to deal with the issues in a direct and honest, yet sensitive and discreet, way, effective training, good listening and clear communication between all stakeholders, including of course the young people or members of staff concerned, will be increasingly important for the foreseeable future.


This article was written by : Dr Seán P. Buckley, Principal, LSI Independent Sixth Form College

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