School has been a real challenge when it comes to mental health. At an early age, students can suffer from depression, anxiety, difficulty focusing and social challenges.
Teachers, parents, and guardians are encouraged to support pupils and help them practise techniques to improve students’ emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
Byron Kölkenbeck-Ruh, a counsellor at St Martin’s High School in the south of Joburg said: “the past year has placed immense pressure on everyone, and especially students. Anxiety and burnout are common as students of all ages feel anxious about their family, friends, state of the country and their future. This can affect their overall well-being.”
Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, a South African in-school digital life skills programme, says that young South Africans are vulnerable to mental health issues caused by the country’s complex socio-economic environment, but there are a number of reasons why mental health can be impacted by online activity and social media usage.
The most common mental illnesses found among tweens and teens include depression, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and eating disorders. These can be triggered by a variety of causes, including long-term illness, a parent with mental illness or alcoholism, being bullied or sexually harassed, being close to a death or divorce in the family, or bearing the responsibility of care for family members.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one in five students face a mental health issue, including anxiety and depression. Teachers, parents, and guardians need to offer students emotional support to look after their mental health. They should also look out for the tell-tale signs that may indicate a child is struggling with their mental health, which can present in students in different ways.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, supporting students with their mental health starts by recognising when they’re struggling and implementing effective techniques to help. “By helping students practise techniques that promote positive mental health, we can help them to cope with anxiety, focus on tasks and thus not overload themselves with additional work,” said Kölkenbeck-Ruh.
Here are some guidelines from Mayo Clinic that may indicate if a student is struggling with their mental health.
- Change in academic performance.
- Struggling to focus on tasks.
- Persistent sadness.
- Mood swings and emotional outbursts.
- Avoiding social interactions.
Five ways to promote positive mental health with students
One task at a time
Often students push homework and assignments aside, especially if deadlines are a long way off. Encourage them to tackle small tasks at a time and not leave homework to the last minute. Working ahead can relieve pressure and feelings of being overwhelmed and enhance positive emotions as they feel a sense of achievement.
Time to unplug
Social media can be a source of negativity, especially in the case of cyberbullying. Encourage students to take a break from their devices and social media. Connecting with the real world and spending time in nature can relieve stress and anxiety.
Rest and relaxation
Schedule time for students to be social and have fun, focusing on something other than academics. Playtime can include socially distanced time with friends and family, playing board games, reading a book, or even trying a new craft.
Listen with an open mind
Many students find it difficult to open up about what they’re going through. Let them know help is available and that you are there to listen, no matter how big or small they may be. Remind them as a family, you’re all in it together. If they’re still struggling to open up, find a counsellor or group where they feel comfortable to talk.
Create a positive environment
Students can find school challenging, especially if they’re struggling emotionally or dealing with low self-esteem. Practise positive thinking and talking, and praise all their achievements. Encourage students that with practise, their hard work will pay off.
Learning about mental health issues, offering support, and knowing techniques that can relieve stress and anxiety can help students succeed despite difficult challenges.