How Do We Protect the Mental Health of Students in a Pandemic
While the headlines have all focused on the COVID pandemic in our schools, there is a connected health crisis that we must deal with- Mental Health.
Learners of all age groups had their in person school connection cut off, losing physical access to their peers. Senior students across the country have had their graduations cancelled. And for too many students across the country, poor internet connectivity meant that they simply could not interact or participate at the level they wanted. All of these situations represent real losses for students and put a burden on their mental and emotional health and can hold them back from success.
If a student has a hard time adjusting to “the new normal,” or is scared of the uncertainty in their future, they could begin to experience a high anxiety that will affect may aspects of their lives: their social connections, their physical health, and indeed, their performance in school.
At UNESCO, we are committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all. There were challenges before COVID-19 struck. Now that we are more than half a year into living with the virus, things are even worse, especially for marginalized groups: girls, disabled students, those who come from poorer backgrounds or who live farther from urban centres.
Earlier this year, UNESCO started the Minding our Minds campaign because it is clear to us that a comprehensive mental health strategy is essential in minimizing the setback students face during this pandemic. It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed.
In order to fight the negative impacts of this pandemic, we need to make sure our students have the mental health support necessary to cope with the losses and transitions of the past year. Putting the focus on good mental health practices can also give us an opportunity to honour the centuries-old practices that are woven into India’s culture.
Meditation and yoga are invaluable tools that can use controlled breathing and focus to help even the youngest students deal with their anxiety and confusion during this age of disruption. And in the case of yoga, the opportunity for physical exercise brings even more benefits to the mind.
Thankfully, these traditional methods are accessible to everyone — especially those working or learning from home — through online videos, free apps, and other online guides. While these methods are nowadays practiced all over the world, India’s new National Education Policy makes clear that they are also an integral part of Indian heritage and should be honoured as such. Put together, this means that traditional mindfulness practices are an important and uniquely Indian tool in combatting current high stress levels.
There are many other important measures that families can take to protect their children’s mental health: keeping a healthy diet and encouraging physical exercise; using online gaming or social media to stay connected with friends and peers; and keeping a regular routine and getting enough sleep. UNESCO’s new Minding our Minds Generic Course to be launched soon contains lots of great tips and strategies for making sure our students are cared for during this difficult time.
As the Indian government’s new National Education Policy makes clear, education is a “great leveller” that creates an essential pathway for students’ socioeconomic mobility, and the country’s success on the world stage in the decades to come. In order to protect this promise for the current generation and India’s future, it is imperative that we help students and their families as they deal with the anxiety, confusion and loss that our current pandemic has brought.