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Mental health is imperative in the development and well-being of children. Unfortunately, after the last few years of unprecedented times, the mental health of Kiwi children and adolescents has taken a huge hit.

Recent research undertaken by the Australian National University has found that those aged five to 18 years were significantly impacted by the pandemic, with another source estimating that one in seven children experienced a mental health disorder within the last 12 months.

In New Zealand, polling for the Mental Health Foundation found that 36 per cent of people surveyed were experiencing poor emotional wellbeing, up from 27 per cent a year ago, an increase that the foundation says is significant and concerning.

Late last year, the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study surveyed nearly 2500 children, aged between 10 and 11, about the effects of Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020.

The study found that nearly 80 per cent of children reported having a good time with their family under lockdown. However, approximately 40 per cent were displaying symptoms of depression and anxiety; girls were more likely to be affected, and Māori and Pasifika children were less likely to be affected.

“What we have is a crisis on top of a crisis, because mental health was already in a crisis,” says Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.

As educators or carers, you’re with the children more than anyone else in their lives, therefore, it is often you who will notice any suspecting behaviours.

Some of the possible signs that a child is struggling mentally include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Withdrawing from social interaction
  • Harming oneself (i.e., unusual bruises, cuts or difficulty moving)
  • Nail and lip biting
  • Overwhelming and/or unprovoked fear
  • Aggression and anger issues (fighting in school or expressing the desire to hurt someone else)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Constant trips to the bathroom
  • Tiredness
  • Difficulty looking into peers and teachers’ eyes
  • Difficulty concentrating or staying still
  • Difficulty sharing or collaborating with other children
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol (even medically prescribed medicine)
  • Severe mood swings
  • Changes in behaviour and/or personality

What can you do as an educator?

Supporting students’ mental health is fundamental to a thriving classroom and should be prioritised regardless of whether a student shows troubling signs or not.

Consider the following actions for your classroom and school to generate greater mental health and awareness:

  • Educate staff, parents, and students on mental health with newsletters, seminars, and class activities
  • Promote social and emotional competency and resilience – teach them how to move past uncomfortable feelings
  • Create and monitor a positive, safe school environment
  • Reinforce positive behaviours and confidence in decision-making
  • Encourage students to help one another
  • Promote physical health and time in the outdoors
  • Remove stigma and treat those struggling as individuals – avoid defining students or grouping them by their difficulties
  • Have easy access to school/university councillors or psychologists, and make sure students know of organisations such as Youthline and What’s Up?
  • Participate and celebrate campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness week and R U OK Day.

Emotional resilience is a crucial skill children must learn to prepare them for life’s ups and downs. It is imperative that educators and carers help foster valuable mental health skills and develop strategies to approach mental health within the classroom from a young age. There are many organisations and initiatives that will help further educate and provide resources and activities for teachers and schools.

If you suspect a child is struggling with their mental health, contact your preferred health care professional and look enrolling them in a personalised health care plan.