UAE schools prioritise mental health as pandemic takes toll

Headteachers take steps to tackle the effects of Covid-19 disruption

Mental health and wellbeing studies will be part of the curriculum at Brighton College Dubai. Courtesy Brighton College Dubai
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Schools in the UAE are focusing on the well-being of pupils who have faced 18 months of disruption due to the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Teachers believe the pressures of the outbreak could affect academic achievement if left unchecked.

Nearly one in three teenagers in a US study said their mental health had suffered due to the pressures of the pandemic.

The online survey of 571 male pupils aged between 11 and 19 in Ohio revealed that 31.7 per cent had reported worsened moods, with 32.6 cent having increased levels of anxiety since March, 2020.

The study, “Perceived Changes in Mood and Anxiety Among Male Youth During the Covid-19 Pandemic”, was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

It is hard not to agree that if a child can do advanced maths, speak multiple languages, or receive top grades, but can't manage their emotions, has no physical stamina, can't practise conflict resolution, little of the academic stuff is really going to matter
Janecke Aarnaes, Universal American School

Experts in the UAE said teenagers were stressed about many things, including remote learning, social isolation, worries about contracting the virus and infecting others.

Janecke Aarnaes, director at Universal American School in Dubai, urged the education community to bring the mental health of children to the top of the agenda.

“When the pandemic deprived many of our young learners of the natural ability to hang out and socialise with friends, it literally stripped the main purpose of getting together in school,” said Ms Aarnaes.

“It is my hope that the safety protocols for schools will factor in mental well-being as much as it did when no person was vaccinated, so that we can allow our students to socially interact without inhibitions.

“It is hard not to agree that if a child can do advanced mathematics, speak multiple languages, or receive top grades, but can't manage their emotions, have no physical stamina, can't practise conflict resolution, or find solutions to the unknown, little of the academic stuff is really going to matter.

“Pupil's mental well-being is critical to their ability to succeed academically.”

She said the school had encouraged pupils to seek help with counsellors and had organised one-on-one and group sessions.

Mental health key to the school day

The school also used mindfulness exercises and open-ended discussion.

The US study found that boys who had increased anxiety and worsened mood during the pandemic tended to be older, from higher income households, and had a history of symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Teenagers who were not close to their families and friends were at higher risk of deteriorating mental health.

Many pupils in the UAE continue to study online.

In June, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai’s private school regulator, announced that more than half of pupils in the emirate had returned to in-person lessons, the highest number since private schools reopened their doors last year.

Pupils had to adapt to change

Carolyn Yaffe, a psychotherapist at Camali Clinic in Dubai, said studying remotely had taken a toll on teenagers in the UAE, with many feeling left behind academically and socially.

“When they returned to school, everything was different,” said Ms Yaffe.

“Some pupils were happy to go back to school, while others had adjusted to online learning and felt overwhelmed.

“They don’t have the same social interaction or lunches together. The changes caused a lot of anxiety and depression in children.”

Ms Yaffe advised parents to observe behavioural changes in their children.

They should watch for signs of depression and anxiety, and be mindful of children becoming withdrawn.

Stress can manifest itself physically, so if children suddenly start complaining of headaches and, stomach aches, that could be a sign that they are experiencing panic attacks.

Parents need to foster open conversations and ask children how they feel.

Ms Yaffe called on schools to increase transparency and be open to questions from pupils and parents.

Lisa Johnson, principal at the American Academy for Girls in Dubai, said many pupils had missed out on major life events like graduations and proms.

“These social interactions are critical for teenagers and their absence has many young people feeling isolated and depressed,” said Ms Johnson

The school conducted surveys and meetings to ask pupils how it could better support their well-being.

“The most important thing parents can do is prioritise the mental and physical health of their children.

“While academics is important, the learning decline that we are seeing globally can be moderated. The effects of poor mental or physical health are long-lasting and can affect all aspects of a child’s life.”

Parents and school provide support network

She said schools must ensure that pupils needing support did not slip through the cracks. She said this was particularly challenging with pupils attending classes online.

Rebecca Coulter, Vice Principal at Dubai British School Jumeirah Park, said there had been issues caused by isolation from friends, family and peers.

“The inability to travel and to see loved ones has had a detrimental impact on mental health and resilience among our more vulnerable children,” said Ms Coulter.

She asked parents to establish healthy daily routines that incorporated both physical and mental health needs; limit the amount of time spent on devices and speak with their children.

Updated: July 18, 2021, 4:36 AM