It was mentioned in Parliament on Nov 22 (2021) that among 100,000 primary school pupils screened nationwide, 12.5% of the Year 5 and Year 6 students were found to be at risk of developing depression, anxiety and stress.
These figures should make us sit up and be very concerned.
The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have some sort of long-term impact on a majority of students, simply because they have lost out on what can be termed normal development for a significant period of their lives.
This is likely to affect their academic performance as well.
Reintegrating to normal school life is vital in helping school children regain normalcy.
However, there could be stress and anxiety associated with this process after a prolonged absence from school.
Many children would have gotten used to being alone and studying online from home, and the adjustment to normal school routine may take time.
Some could exhibit features of separation anxiety, being away from their parents and family.
However, it will be hard to gauge the full impact of the situation on children and young people’s mental health until we fully emerge from this pandemic.
Students’ experiences of the pandemic will be very varied.
Most, despite movement restrictions, are likely to have felt safe and made the best of their time.
For others, it could have been challenging, or even traumatic.
Many children and young people already experience difficult home environments.
These challenging circumstances would have been increased by the measures in place to control the pandemic.
Others could have faced such home experiences for the first time.
These might include domestic violence, abuse or financial concerns, such as loss of employment for their parents.
The experience of the pandemic may lead to many children feeling uncertain.
Many students may worry that things that used to feel safe and predictable, such as school, may no longer be something they can rely on.
What is perceived to be sudden and inconsistent changes may cause a lack of confidence among young people in the adults or authorities in their lives.
In witnessing adults struggle to agree about how to manage the crisis, their sense that they can rely on adults to keep them safe may have diminished.
It remains a particularly difficult period for those moving from primary to secondary school, and those in important exam years.
For those who are approaching the end of their time at school – whether they are considering getting into college or university, or looking for work – the pandemic has already done its damage on them.
Most severely hit are those who face restrictions on admissions processes, especially if it involves entry to a university abroad.
With employment prospects remaining unclear, many school leavers are likely to worry about their future.
Some children and young people would have experienced the death of a relative or family friend during the pandemic, or been painfully aware of such a person being seriously unwell or hospitalised.
They are likely to have also experienced long-term isolation from important figures in their life, such as grandparents.
Regardless of the type of loss, those who were in such a situation would have experienced it with a sense of grief.
The way children and young people respond to feelings of loss and grief differ widely.
Some may seem sad or withdrawn, others may appear irritable or angry.
The Education and Health Ministries have taken appropriate measures in conducting this psychological screening with a clear plan to implement measures to assist the affected children.
These include credible therapeutic interventions, as well as consultations with mental health professionals.
Such timely measures are important to prevent the worsening of any mental health symptoms.
Therefore, it becomes crucial for teachers to work closely with parents to ensure that the child gets the most appropriate attention and treatment.
Role of teachers
Teachers must be empowered to detect psychological distress and watch out for any warning signs in the child’s behaviour that interferes with their ability to play and learn.
Some of these signs include not only prolonged sadness and poor social skills, but also irritability and tantrums in some children.
Children need to be convinced that being supportive of each other will help them get through this together.
They also need to be routinely praised for their contributions and efforts.
Teachers are in the best position to foster feelings of safety and security by developing positive relationships with each student and using routines to help children feel safe and secure.
Even in the best of times, teaching has been an extremely stressful profession.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put the profession under the spotlight, and naturally, there is pressure to perform.
Teachers need to protect their own physical and mental health as well, and remember to seek support if they experience significant feelings of distress.
Role of parents
For parents, returning to school may come with a mix of relief and excitement, along with a new set of concerns pertaining to the welfare and safety of their children.
Parents may worry about their children getting infected at school.
While understandably under tremendous stress, parents should refrain from blaming the psychological decompensation in their children on the school environment, and on teachers in particular.
Parents too can help their children cope with school by focusing on the positive aspects of school, rather than being preoccupied by the negative aspects.
They should spend some time with their children to go through various scenarios that could take place in school, so that children are not overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty.
Communication about Covid-19 risks and safety protocols should not be left entirely to school authorities.
Children take emotional cues from adults, so parents need to remain calm and not appear overtly anxious in the presence of their young children.
There is a need for parents to demonstrate effective ways of coping with their own anxiety for children to follow suit.
The education and mental wellbeing of children is of incredible importance in the post-Covid recovery plan.
It is important to remember that children are counting on us to get it right so that they can feel emotionally, as well as physically safe, to learn – which is just as it should be.
Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is a consultant psychiatrist, Green Ribbon Group policy advisor and Malaysian Mental Health Association president. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.