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Advice for school and university leaders: How to support your community's mental health and well-being during Coronavirus

by Katie Rigg

School and university leaders are facing unprecedented and profound challenges. Guiding an organisation through a global pandemic whilst also attending to personal suffering requires extraordinary effort. Key amongst these are the efforts that leaders are making to protect the mental health and well-being of their communities. 

Recent polls, emerging studies and research from previous outbreaks all suggest that the mental health impact of the pandemic could be profound and long-lasting. People everywhere are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and so much grief and loss. 

Against this background, schools and universities are becoming powerful protective factors and vital sources of support during this time, offering opportunities for virtual connection, joyful events, academic engagement, social emotional learning and therapeutic intervention.

Drawing on our collective expertise and that of the contributing experts, and on our members’ experiences, we have prepared this article for you to download to help you to support your communities during this time and have outlined a summary below.

"The mental health effects of COVID-19 are as important to address as are the physical health effects." – Gionfriddo, P. President and CEO of Mental Health America, 3 March 2020.

Here is a summary of our key considerations:

1. Keep it simple and apply the essentials of good leadership

In the first section of the article, Rob Evans, Ed.D and Michael Thompson, PhD. explain that leading in a crisis requires you to draw on the essentials of good leadership, which are courage, connection, candour, clarity and empathy.

2. Draw on evidence-based practices

Douglas Walker, PhD. demonstrates how these essentials of good leadership are underpinned by evidence into organisational responses to large-scale crises, which highlights the importance of five key elements: providing opportunities for connection, enabling communities to be hopeful, providing a sense of safety, encouraging self and community efficacy, and modelling good practice through calm and thoughtful leadership and communication. 

3. Adapt your policies and communications and engage your board

In this section of the article, we encourage you to take stock of the ways in which you already support the well-being of your community and consider how you can address new needs and make this support work in remote learning environments. This might include introducing a mental health or well-being policy if you do not already have one, which can provide you with a framework for your organisation-wide approach. It might also be necessary to update reporting protocols so that they work in your new virtual environment, or appointing mental health leads or champion(s). Streamlining communications so that they do not become overwhelming is also discussed.

4. Identify and support at-risk individuals and prepare to support some individuals through traumatic grief

Consider who in your community is facing additional challenges and offer them targeted or specialist support if you can. Your teachers and faculty are in a very good position to help you to identify at-risk students. Individuals who might struggle include those with underlying mental health conditions, those who are exposed to harm in the home, separated from families or in different time zones from their school or university, those who struggle with technology and those who are caring for someone who has contracted the virus. These emerging resources will also help your faculty to identify students who are struggling and recognise signs that someone might be experiencing traumatic grief.

"It has made my OCD so much worse. I am now washing my hands every five minutes or using hand sanitiser." – Young Minds, Coronavirus: Impact on young people with mental health needs, March 2020.

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Photo by🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

5. Learn about the challenges and the impact of your institution’s support over time, and take action in response

The unprecedented nature of the Coronavirus makes it difficult to know how best to support people. Consulting with your community about the challenges they face and seeking feedback from them on your institution’s responses will help to ensure that the support you are providing meets the needs that are arising in practice. Using well-being instruments such as community surveys or engagement sessions can help, as can one-to-one contact and small group discussions around social emotional themes.

6. Protect educator well-being

One of the key takeaways from our members who have been teaching remotely since January has been the importance of protecting staff well-being and preventing educator burn-out. In this section of the article, Ellen Mahoney reflects on the key elements of compassionate leadership and the importance of recognising that emotional fatigue may come in waves. The benefits of effective line management and the role of supervision in preventing compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are also discussed.

7. Create on-going opportunities for virtual connection and prioritise well-being

Connection is one of the most important protective factors for individual and community well-being. In this section of the article, we explain how our members have created on-going opportunities for virtual connection by bringing their communities together around fun and creative topics, and by holding resilience-based workshops.

Although many leaders are asked to resolve a ‘conflict’ between well-being on the one hand and learning on the other, in this section we argue that this is a false dichotomy and that focusing on well-being is necessary to enable teaching and learning to continue. This might mean taking longer breaks, interspersing mental health days or suspending formal learning and focusing exclusively on well-being for certain periods.

"If you have friends to speak to then speak to them and let them know you are thinking of them. Even just a couple of update texts from my friend made me feel so much better." – Young Minds, Coronavirus: Impact on young people with mental health needs, March 2020.

"Should we continue student learning during covid-19? A question of Maslow before Bloom." – Doucet A., 26 March 2020.

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Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

8. Provide your community with the tools they need to protect their own well-being, support others and be hopeful about the future

Quarantines and physical isolation from others can increase our stress levels and disrupt our usual coping mechanisms. Providing your community with the knowledge and tools they need to protect their own well-being during this time is important. Key to this is recognising that the way that we feel depends in large part on our physiology and that this can be protected by maintaining healthy habits in a number of key areas such as sleep, exercise and alcohol consumption.

Finding meaning and appreciating positive changes that result from crises can help with the grieving process. As leaders, you are ideally placed to help your community to do this.

"So much suffering and anxiety everywhere… But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterward." – Saunders, G. A Letter to My Students as We Face the Pandemic, 3 April 2020

Download the full report here.

Katie Rigg is the Head of Safeguarding and Student Well-Being at The Council of International Schools (CIS). Katie’s primary responsibility is to help CIS and school and university members to keep children and young people safe and to support and strengthen their mental health and well-being. In this capacity Katie carries out and supports research into new areas, develops resources, provides guidance and oversees professional development.

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Do you have questions or comments about this article? Please contact us – we look forward to hearing from you!

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posted 4 months ago
Katie Rigg
Head of Safeguarding & Student Well-being, The Council of International Schools. My responsibility is to help keep children & young people safe; support & strengthen their mental health & well-being.