South African students’ lives changed in unprecedented ways when lockdown measures closed schools. Overnight, students had to embrace online learning, adjust to cancelled extra-curricular activities, and miss seeing their classmates, teachers, friends, or extended family. This drastic change to their routine and news about the growing global health crisis introduced a new uncertainty in the students’ already-disrupted lives.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one in five students face a mental health issue, including anxiety and depression. Teachers, parents, and guardians need to offer students emotional support to look after their mental health. They should also lookout for the tell-tale signs that may indicate a child is struggling with their mental health, which can present in students in different ways.

Here are some guidelines from Mayo Clinic that may indicate if a student is struggling with their mental health.

  • Change in academic performance.
  • Struggling to focus on tasks.
  • Persistent sadness.
  • Mood swings and emotional outbursts.
  • Avoiding social interactions.

“The past year has placed immense pressure on everyone, and especially students. Anxiety and burnout are common as students of all ages feel anxious about their family, friends, state of the country and their future. This can affect their overall well-being,” said Byron Kölkenbeck-Ruh, a counsellor at St Martin’s High School in the south of Johannesburg.

Teachers, parents, and guardians should be encouraged to support students and help them practice techniques to improve students’ emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Five ways to promote positive mental health with students:

One task at a time
Often students push homework and assignments aside, especially if deadlines are a long way off. Encourage them to tackle small tasks at a time and not leave homework to the last minute. Working ahead can relieve pressure and feelings of being overwhelmed and enhance positive emotions as they feel a sense of achievement.

Time to unplug
Social media can be a source of negativity, especially in the case of cyberbullying. Encourage students to take a break from their devices and social media. Connecting with the real world and especially spending time in nature can relieve stress and anxiety.

Rest and relaxation
Schedule time for students to be social and have fun, focusing on something other than academics. Playtime can include socially distanced time with friends and family, playing board games, reading a book, or even trying a new craft.

Listen with an open mind
Many students find it difficult to open up about what they’re going through. Let them know help is available and that you are there to listen, no matter how big or small they may be. Remind them as a family, you’re all in it together. If they’re still struggling to open up, find a counsellor or group where they feel comfortable to talk.

Create a positive environment
Students can find school challenging, especially if they’re struggling emotionally or dealing with low self-esteem. Practice positive thinking and talking, and praise all their achievements. Encourage students that with practice, their hard work will pay off.

Supporting students with their mental health starts by recognising when they’re struggling and implementing effective techniques to help. “By helping students practice techniques that promote positive mental health, we can help them to cope with anxiety, focus on tasks and thus not overload themselves with additional work,” Kölkenbeck-Ruh said.

Learning about mental health issues, offering support, and knowing techniques that can relieve stress and anxiety can help students succeed despite difficult challenges.