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Mental health strategies in schools since the COVID-19 pandemic

Three years ago, the world was caught in an unprecedented global crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic severely impacted individuals, societies, cities, countries, and the global healthcare system. It affected everyone, irrespective of country, personal beliefs, status, religion, and age. People worldwide grappled with lockdowns, physical and social isolation, working from home, fear of contracting the virus, unexpected and uncontrolled causalities, and economic uncertainties.

The pandemic brought immediate health crisis issues to the forefront worldwide. Mental health is one health-related issue that was significantly impacted by the pandemic and has emerged as a critical concern in the following years. Amidst the challenges, however, the pandemic also led to a paradigm shift in how mental health is perceived, understood, and addressed.

Young school-age students were hit particularly hard with measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic: no in-person learning, outdoor play, or gatherings with friends.  As a result, the pandemic changed students’ mental health needs and challenges throughout the world. As educational institutions recover from the crisis, effective school-based interventions must be prioritized and implemented to address the paradigm shifts in mental health.

This article first explores the transformative changes in the mental health paradigm because of the COVID-19 pandemic and how mental health is understood, addressed, and prioritized. The article also addresses strategies for school-based interventions. The significant changes in the mental health landscape brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons we have learned are also explored. Finally, considering the lessons learned from the pandemic, strategies that support students’ well-being and foster a positive mental health environment in schools are explored.

Changes in mental health paradigms since COVID-19

The transformative change in mental health paradigms due to the COVID-19 pandemic is examined by considering different aspects of the following seven focuses.

Recognizing the prevalence of mental health issues

As a result of the pandemic, individuals faced the emotional toll of isolation due to long lockdowns, grief, anxiety, and depression. The number of mental health cases increased dramatically post-pandemic. Because mental health issues were brought to the forefront of public consciousness, society recognized the importance of prioritizing mental well-being. People of all ages and backgrounds are impacted by fear and uncertainty in regard to mental health. The pandemic has left its mark by creating a whole range of mental health challenges.

Considering the current mental health situation following the pandemic, governments and healthcare systems have understood the significance of acknowledging and addressing mental health issues on a broader scale. The increased awareness about mental health is helping reduce the stigma associated with it, and people are now more open to having discussions about their mental health. Encouraging affected individuals to seek help and support is also easier because of these changes.

Breaking down stigma and promoting open conversations

Mental health issues or disorders are taboo in society and normally remain hidden. The number of post-pandemic cases has accelerated the need for open conversations about mental health, helping to break down long-standing stigmas. Because the whole world experienced a health crisis, open conversations about mental health have become easier. People are now more comfortable expressing their struggles and receiving support from qualified professionals. This level of openness and acceptance can also be attributed to media coverage shining a light on the issue and the increased public discourse.

Rise of teletherapy and digital mental health services

The lockdowns and physical isolation that occurred during the pandemic necessitated a shift to remote healthcare. Telemedicine and digital health services expanded at a phenomenal rate due to the pandemic. Telehealth and digital solutions for medical services emerged as valuable tools to ensure continuity of care for people who were infected by the virus or had other health concerns. In regards to mental health services, in-person therapy sessions were traditionally the primary method of treatment, but telehealth and digital solutions have now evolved into a standard form of care.

Virtual therapy sessions, mental health apps, and online support have become both widely accessible and acceptable, breaking down barriers of geography and providing convenient access to mental healthcare resources. This paradigm shift in mental health care has highlighted the accessibility and convenience of remote mental health services, paving the way for more inclusive and flexible approaches to therapy.

Community support and social connections

The global experience of the pandemic has created a sense of collective trauma for people around the world. Most of us have faced loss, grief, and significant life disruptions on a large scale. Stories of resilience, compassion, and community support have also emerged amidst the challenges, however. Individuals have identified and acknowledged the importance of community resilience in mental health and the promotion of well-being. There is increased empathy and better support networks due to the collective nature of trauma resulting from COVID-19.

After the pandemic, the critical roles of social connection and community support were recognized for helping to maintain positive mental health. As physical distancing measures limited in-person interactions, individuals and communities found innovative ways to stay virtually connected. The crisis emphasized the need to nurture social support networks and foster a sense of belonging to combat loneliness and isolation.

Integration of mental health care into healthcare systems

The aftereffects of the pandemic prompted governments and healthcare organizations to invest more resources in public healthcare and mental health services and support.

Mental health in public policy is becoming critical because of the rapid increase in people requiring mental health care following the pandemic. These increases have necessitated more funding for mental healthcare programs, research, and infrastructure. These changes showcase how mental healthcare has transformed after the pandemic, with people now focusing on the prioritization of mental health as a vital aspect of overall healthcare.

The pandemic also unveiled the interconnection between the physical and mental health of people affected by COVID-19, both directly and indirectly. Public health initiatives now incorporate mental health considerations, acknowledging the deep impact of mental well-being on overall health outcomes. Policymakers and healthcare systems recognized the need for integrated healthcare approaches that address both physical and mental health needs. Increased collaboration between medical professionals and mental healthcare specialists has resulted in more comprehensive patient care.

Mental health in public policy

The post-pandemic necessity for mental health care has prompted governments to prioritize mental health in public policy and allocate resources accordingly. There has been an increase in investments in mental health services, research, and preventive measures. Long-term strategies are also being implemented for mental health issues beyond the immediate pandemic impact, as mental health is now considered an essential aspect of overall public health.

The following six descriptors examine how mental health perceptions have changed after the COVID-19 pandemic. The next part of the article will discuss the strategies that schools and other educational institutions are using to support their students. These strategies are based on the above-mentioned lessons learned about mental health after the pandemic.

Strategies for school-based interventions

According to a recent study, the COVID-19 pandemic had a substantial impact on children and adolescent mental health. Children had a range of reactions, including anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress, fear, tension, anger, fatigue, confusion, and worry. From March 2020 to October 2020, mental health-related emergency department visits increased by 24% for children ages 5 to 11, compared with emergency department visits in 2019, according to CDC data. Many of the increased visits can be attributed to the lockdowns, which impacted the delivery of mental health services in schools. Many children did not have a source of primary support for their mental health.

Schools must implement effective interventions so that they can recover from the pandemic crisis and address the changing paradigm in mental health needs for children and youth. Schools can encourage their employees to earn an online school counseling master’s degree, such as a Master of Science in Education, School Counseling, from a reputed university such as St. Bonaventure University. Online master’s degrees offer sufficient flexibility, and free up time that may have otherwise been spent commuting, so individuals can better balance other commitments while learning how to empower their students to overcome challenges and grow into well-adjusted adults.

The pandemic created complex situations for students that affected their mental health. The impact on mental health cannot be compared to a standard, as everyone is affected differently. Students have different characteristics, come from different backgrounds, and have different family circumstances.

Some of the common mental health issues that students experience include:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Depression and loneliness
  • Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Behavioral challenges
  • Academic problems

Following the pandemic, promotion and support for student mental health became the responsibility of professionals working at schools. These professionals include teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and administrators.

Below are some strategies that may be adopted for school-based interventions that can help in creating more positive and inclusive school cultures for good mental health.

Promoting mental health literacy

For schools and educational institutions to create supportive school environments after the pandemic, they must focus on improving mental health literacy among students, teachers, and parents. Schools can add mental health education to their curriculum and tailor the programs to offer age-appropriate information about mental health, stress-coping strategies, and help-seeking resources. With these resources at their disposal, students will develop resilience and empathy towards themselves and others, as they will be more aware of mental health issues and able to have conversations about them.

Strengthening emotional learning

Schools can implement emotional learning programs, which are vital in nurturing students’ emotional health and well-being. These comprehensive programs are designed to promote self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The addition of evidence-based programs in schools empowers students to build the skills required to cope with stress. These skills will not only help manage post-pandemic mental health issues but will also help students manage their academics, build positive relationships, and effectively regulate their emotions.

Providing mental health services

Schools must ensure that mental health services are provided and that these services are easily accessible to students in need. The services offered must also be responsive to student needs and qualified to offer the required support. Educational institutions can collaborate with mental health professionals or partner with community-based mental health organizations to set up online and offline counseling services. Additionally, teletherapy options can further enhance accessibility, particularly for students who face logistical or transportation barriers. A multidisciplinary approach involving school counselors, psychologists, and social workers can provide comprehensive support to students.

Creating supportive peer networks

Schools must work on facilitating the creation of peer support groups or mentoring programs. They can provide different types of outlets for students to connect with their peers, share experiences, and receive emotional support. These types of peer networks foster a sense of belonging. Students are less likely to feel isolated, and they will be encouraged to seek out professional help whenever needed.

Implementing mindfulness and stress reduction techniques

Stress reduction or management techniques are crucial for managing anxiety and improving overall mental well-being for both adults and children. Schools can opt for modifying their daily routines by adding a little bit of mindfulness, breathing techniques, and relaxation exercises. These simple tools can help students manage their stress effectively. It is an easy way for schools to empower children and youth to deal calmly with challenging situations and practice self-care.

Fostering a positive school climate

Schools must work on fostering positive and inclusive environments to maintain and support students’ mental health. Anti-bullying initiatives, zero-tolerance policies, and respectful behavior towards all should be a mantra and policy for all educational institutions. A sense of belonging, tolerance, and empathy within the student body can help schools reduce the negative effects of social exclusion and bullying and promote students’ well-being.

Strengthening collaboration with families and community

While school may be the primary source of mental health support for many students, it is also important to understand the importance of family and community. Schools must collaborate with parents and communities to best support students’ mental health. Schools can set up workshops or informational sessions to educate them about mental health and how they can support children suffering from any mental health issue. Interacting with the community can also enrich students’ support networks.

Universal screening and assessment

School-based professionals can use standardized tools to screen and regularly assess students’ mental health needs and risks. This can help identify students who may need additional support or intervention before problems arise and monitor their progress and outcomes over time.

Mental health is very important and relevant to all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted human lives in multiple ways, and many influences are not positive. Stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, trauma, and grief were common stressors among adults and children after the pandemic. These negative feelings affect everyone’s well-being, health, relationships, and all aspects of life.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this collective experience catalyzed a paradigm shift in mental health. Increased mental health issues in all ages of global populations led societies and healthcare organizations to face the challenges faced by everyone in maintaining their health and well-being.

The citizens of the world have taken steps in the right direction by promoting open conversations, embracing digital mental health services, nurturing social connections, integrating mental health into healthcare systems, and prioritizing mental health in public policy. This inclusive, compassionate, and resilient approach to mental health care will help all members of society—from the elderly to children—live full, productive, and meaningful lives.

Considering that students attend school for almost all of their childhood and adolescent lives, it is important that schools focus on supporting their mental health. This is especially crucial as they return to the classroom and in-person learning after long periods of remote learning. Schools are not only a place for academic learning but also contribute to building children’s social and emotional skills. After the pandemic, schools must keep up with the globally changing perception of mental health and work on new strategies to create safe and supportive environments for everyone.

Final thoughts

Schools are adopting new practices and programs to address their students’ mental health and overall well-being. They can improve the mental health situation post-pandemic by promoting mental health literacy, strengthening social-emotional learning programs, providing accessible mental health services, creating supportive peer networks, and other similar programs.

These interventions are crucial at this time and will not only support the immediate needs of students but also equip them with skills to become well-adjusted members of society. They will be able to navigate any future challenges with resilience and practice self-care for their well-being.

As schools continue to embrace these strategies for intervention, they can play a pivotal role in shaping a resilient and mentally healthy generation.

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