Just as we seemed to be seeing the back of Covid, along came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This has resonated with the British public and media. Responses include shock, incredulity, anger, and despair that such a thing could happen. Day by day we have watched a war unfold, the exodus of refugees, the commentaries from political leaders all over the world and the brave leadership of President Zelensky.
It has been dramatic and caught the public's imagination in a way that few catastrophes ever do. However, there has been a downside. Children are no longer shielded from news of war, and it has played a part in raising their levels of anxiety, their sense of vulnerability and their feelings that they are powerless to effect change.
The impact on mental health
The Royal College of Psychiatrists says the pandemic has led to 'unprecedented demand and backlogs'. We know that services are struggling to keep waiting lists to realistic times. There is little point promising someone an appointment in 10 months' time when they are traumatised now.
According to NHS Digital, there were 4.3 million referrals for conditions such as anxiety and depression in 2021. Just under a quarter - 1.025 million - were for children or adolescents.
Covid and Ukraine were very different catastrophes. Covid was a crisis that crept up gradually but was close to home. Children were quite likely to know someone who had caught it and worried that they might be next. Ukraine is not on our doorstep but was a sudden and very immediate crisis with daily images of guns and tanks, pictures of casualties and corpses. The more dramatic the reporting, the greater the tension and anxiety in viewers.
Do we talk about war and nuclear war?
Ignoring or avoiding the topic can lead to children feeling more vulnerable. They can start to worry because they don’t have the answers to their questions. They may wonder if this is normal. It may affect their sleep patterns, especially if they look at news or commentators on tablets and smartphone just before bedtime.
Look, learn and listen is a good way forward. Listen to what they say in the playground. Make time to listen when a child wants to talk and try to find out if there are specific worries. Some children will be worried about pets after the animal airlift from Afghanistan. The current conflict in Ukraine may well trigger trauma for children of other races who have come from war torn areas. There may be refugees or children who have family members in Syria, Afghanistan or African countries where there is unrest, war or genocide.
Look out for how children respond. Some children might find the whole war aspect very exciting and want to act this out at break time. This might stir feelings of distress or of aggression in other children. This is not necessarily a time to invoke your behavioural policy, rather a time to connect and support the child.
With all of the above, be mindful of the child’s age. Sometimes we engage with children as if they are adults. This can be a good thing and shows that we respect them and value their views and it can work well for academic discussions. However, we do have to be mindful that children may not be emotionally mature, and discussions related to violence can be triggering.
Be open but be as optimistic as possible
In the face of doom and gloom, it is easy to give way and all the speculation leads to catastrophising. Now is a good time to reinforce messages about fact and opinion and to talk about what has happened and why this is more significant than what might happen.
Talk to students about what they do if they cannot sleep or if they get upset when watching the news. Give children information about sleep hygiene so they give themselves the best chance of a good night's sleep which will benefit both their mental and physical health. You may find our webinar on sleep helpful to share with parents/carers - https://www.myedupod.com/sleepinlockdown
Talk about the work of aid agencies and the ways that world leaders are trying to develop and support dialogue between Russian and Ukraine. Give them a practical way to help, such as fundraising for the Red Cross or DEC.
What about the staff?
There is an unwritten rule in many schools that, regardless of world events, staff will pick themselves up, process their feelings and get on with the job.
Staff are exhausted this year and half terms and holidays have been so eroded by other pressures and deadlines that there is not enough time for teachers to switch off. We know that there are three times as many NHS mental health referrals for adults as children, yet extra duties are being added to the load: identifying children for catch up programmes, following up on children who have not returned to school, organising in-person parents' evenings, working on transition programmes plus the endless emails. Piling on more responsibilities and administrative tasks will not be productive and may increase stress and staff absence.
Staff need more support, protected time, supervision so they have a chance to unload some of their concerns, reflect and share feelings in a non-judgemental setting. Teachers are an important resource and can make such a difference to children's lives, we need to make sure they are well enough to do their job. A whole school approach to mental health enables staff and students to access early help.
Innovating Minds https://www.innovatingmindscic.com/