Supporting Teenagers in the Age of COVID-19

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 28 April 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: COVID-19; Pastoral Care; Mental Health and Wellbeing

One of the most telling commentaries about the effect of the pandemic on our young people was aired recently on RTE News. It confirmed my own fears based on a lifetime working with older teenagers in school, that their wellbeing and mental health are fragile.  On March 12th Philip Bromwell interviewed six teenagers from Larkhill Community College in Dublin and he reported on their experience;

 “While the pandemic has been emotionally challenging for us all, many fear its impact on teenagers has been particularly severe. It arrived at just the age when many of them felt ready to spread their wings. It has taken their freedom, destroyed their routines and affected their mental health. It put friends - who are everything during adolescence - largely out of reach”.

It was particularly poignant to hear the quotes from the secondary school pupils which sum it all up;

"With the pandemic, I have felt like I am caged in. You can't meet friends or family. Watching everything change around you - seeing the whole world turn upside down - has been tough. Honestly, half of us can't deal with it.  

Some people may think that teenagers are making a big fuss about things. But I feel some adults just don't get it as much as others do. It really isn't fun being isolated and on your own, without your friends or the people you really care about. I would feel much happier just being around everyone again."

In these comments are core truths about how this age group is trying to navigate a way through these crucial years of their lives and either make a success of it or suffer the often-tragic consequences of failure to do so. Schools with all their flaws and problems are places where these realities are understood and where the adults who care for the children work hard to put in place classrooms and playing fields which are positive, safe social contexts which will allow them to learn not only academic curriculum knowledge but crucially the life skills, interpersonal sensitivities and most importantly self confidence that it takes to be a balanced happy adult.

While achieving happiness in later adult life may not be formally set as a measurable learning outcome from schooldays like A level or GCSE grades, it should be. All the academic success in the world is of no benefit to a person who cannot cope with the challenge of sustaining good relationships and working effectively with others. This goal should not only be one for individuals and schools but also for society in general as we can see every day the human cost and economic damage when this goes wrong.

This is not a new problem, but the Covid Pandemic has intensified it and we need to be aware that it requires attention. The BBC reported in March that concern in Northern Ireland schools is growing about the mental health issues of children, particularly teenagers. This is confirmed by reports during the lockdown period from the Education and Training Inspectorate.

Their reports are wide-ranging and show that schools and their staff face many challenges, but crucially highlight feedback from schools on pupil and staff well-being and mental health.

Post-primary schools they state, "were dealing with a greater number of mental health matters, some of which were directly related to lockdown, including a "greater incidence of self-harm, anxiety and depression".

The response from schools is of course that they need to be able to provide more "in-house" pastoral care support for pupils.

Having worked in pastoral care roles in schools for many years I know that it operates at several levels. Firstly, each class teacher has a critical role to know and monitor their pupils and be aware of warning signs of problems, perhaps in terms of changes of demeanour or behaviour and then offer support or if necessary, pass it up the line. Secondly schools then need trained specialist staff, to pick up these cases which in the first instance can be dealt with in house. For more serious problems however, school pastoral staff need to be able to call on the support of outside specialist help. 

The Inspectorate worryingly reported that;

"Absence of input on the ground from outside agencies, with support delivered online and longer waiting times for referrals are putting pressure on staff in schools".

As a result, some schools told ETI that there needed to more "in-house" support for pupils' mental health.  So are we saying that we have identified a problem with adolescent mental health coming out of the pandemic and that schools, who will bear the brunt of dealing with this in the first instance, are not ready? 

As always this comes down to education budget cuts during the Tory government’s ‘austerity years’, when schools were forced to protect curriculum priorities and time at the expense of pastoral care, staff time and taught pastoral care lessons, which could head off many of these potential problems. This is a topic I have often mentioned in this series of articles dating back way before the current circumstances. Even though no one could have foreseen this, as a society we need to prioritise general wellbeing above other considerations and plan budgets accordingly.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday this month President Michael D Higgins spoke eloquently about the future and although he was referring mainly to The Republic of Ireland, his thoughts have a much wider resonance. One idea in particular stood out for me especially in the context of support for the mental health of our young people in the aftermath of the pandemic. He argued that recent experience has shown that the role of the state in our lives must grow if we are to secure meaningful change in social improvement and have a better future for everyone.

One of the lessons we must surely have learned during this past traumatic year is that we must put individual needs and wants on a lower level than the collective good. As we go forward let us hope that this translates into proper public spending on health and education as we can now see how much we depend on both.


This article is correct at 28/04/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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