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Impact of Covid-19 on school pupils has been detrimental - experts

“Parents need to be both patient and supportive in helping their child or adolescent manage depression and anxiety.”

14 September 2021 - 08:03
Education expert Michelle Naudé said interruptions to schooling make affording the basics like school fees and groceries even harder
TROUBLED Education expert Michelle Naudé said interruptions to schooling make affording the basics like school fees and groceries even harder
Image: Esa Alexander

If you thought 2020 was difficult for pupils, 2021 has been even more complicated.

Not only have these young people had to deal with Covid-19 that has seen them forgoing face-to-face learning and quality time with their friends, some of their families have been robbed of their livelihoods due to job losses. This year pupils, particularly those in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, have found themselves in an even stickier situation as they witnessed the unrest and looting that left some schools in a state of disrepair.

Academic Michelle Naudé from distance learning college Mancosa said it’s no secret that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools have been detrimental.

She said the progress schools made during the hard lockdown, including adapting to online teaching, had been reversed when at least 180 schools were damaged in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng during the recent civil unrest. School libraries were wrecked, electronic equipment stolen, plumbing and electrical wiring destroyed, and food for school nutrition programmes stolen.

Naudé said such interruptions to schooling made affording the basics such as school fees and groceries even harder.  “Learners whose parents cannot afford the many costs associated with school, such as stationery and transport, might be forced to join the 500,000 others who have dropped out over the last two years. Those fortunate enough to matriculate will enter a devastated economy, and for many learners, anxiety about the future will make it difficult to stay academically motivated,” she said.

Meanwhile the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) said witnessing the Covid-19 pandemic, their parents losing their jobs, the recent looting and uncertainty about their schooling future had left many young people traumatised. Sadag said on Monday that its helpline had seen an increase in calls from teens and adolescents, including young adults from 18—35 years old.

Sadag received an unprecedented 2,000 calls a day to its helpline, with 5,000 WhatsApps daily during the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

“This really highlighted to us how many people realised that they needed help, but we know that there are still many more out there who will benefit from counselling,” said Cassey Chambers, operations director at Sadag.

“If adults have felt anxious, stressed, and have been struggling to navigate the impact of Covid-19 on their mental health, we know that the stress and anxiety is felt even more with our children and adolescents.”

Chambers said the group is concerned about the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of young people, who are already a risk group for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even suicide. “These calls are soaring because, against the backdrop of all the trauma our children are experiencing, they’re uncertain how to articulate what they’re feeling, how to ask for help, and in many instances, they don’t know who they can turn to for the help they need,” Chambers says.

Psychologist Liane Lurie said parents should monitor their children’s behaviour for any signs of trauma and mental health challenges.

These signs include disorganised behaviour, agitation, a disruption in their sleeping and eating habits, regression in milestones, or exaggerated startled responses in situations that they would normally process easily. Other signs could include being aggressive in games, using “baby” talk or even stopping talking altogether, or insisting on avoiding people or places that remind them of a traumatic incident. In older children, red flags include self-harm, withdrawing from activities or relationships in which they usually find joy, or substance abuse.

“Parents need to be both patient and supportive in helping their child or adolescent manage depression and anxiety.

“It’s important that parents do not see the manifestations of mental illness as intentional or rebellious behaviour. It’s also imperative that the child or adolescent is not punished for things like a decline in academic performance that occurs because of depression.”

Chambers said while parents may too feel overwhelmed, it’s important to normalise talking about mental health to help break the stigma. “Adolescents and children may be experiencing both post-traumatic stress disorder and current traumatic stress. With no end in sight to this pandemic, they do not know what the future holds and what they can bank on or look forward to. And for many stuck in a cycle of poverty or daily exposure to violence, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel may feel foreign or even impossible.”