From the bushfires, smoke pollution and floods, the scale of disasters Australia faced this summer was unprecedented. Coupled with coronavirus fears, these events can have immediate and long-term implications on the mental health of young people.
Monash Educational and Developmental Psychologist Emily Berger provides insights for teachers.
Past disasters such as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and the 2014 Hazelwood smoke event led to psychological distress for children and adolescents and had impacts on their academic achievement. New research also points to emerging concerns for young people about climate change, the future of the environment and animal conservation. Terms such as ‘climate anxiety’, ‘climate trauma’ and ‘eco-anxiety’ have been coined.
A child’s resilience to the effect of disasters and related circumstances is linked to:
- How parents and teachers respond to these events and how they support children
- How much information they are given about the unfolding events
- If they have been exposed to other stressful events
- If they have experienced significant mental distress or mental illness in the past
- Giving children ideas about how they can help, how they are unable to help and how others are helping.
While the specific psychological effects of the coronavirus on children and young people are yet to be understood, other events causing actual or threatened illness and quarantine have been documented to cause anxiety and distress for some children. In school settings, it is likely that children and adolescents will be talking about the bushfires and coronavirus with their peers and teachers.
Below are some tips for teachers when talking to children and adolescents about disasters and the coronavirus.
Listen to students
- Identify any unhelpful thoughts and feelings of students about the bushfires and coronavirus. Identifying unhelpful thoughts can prompt teachers to challenge thoughts causing anxiety for students.
- Listen in a non-judgemental way, ask questions and continue to be curious about students’ thoughts and feelings about these events.
- Allow students to talk about the bushfires and coronavirus but also do not push students to talk about these issues.
- Be responsive to classroom discussion about the events but also monitor these discussions and speak individually to students who may need additional reassurance.
- Provide space and time for students to talk about their concerns. Remember, their concerns might continue or change over time.
Talk to students
- Show an openness to talk about the bushfires and coronavirus with students.
- Be hopeful, reassuring and express that you have confidence in the emergency and community response when answering questions from students.
- Continue to monitor the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of students and identify students who are continually talking about or who appear distracted by the events.
- Provide students with balanced and more helpful thoughts. Students may exaggerate or have an inaccurate perception of the risks and how they can help.
- Provide children with ideas about how they can assist people impacted by the bushfires or peers who are concerned about the coronavirus, such as telling students to tell teachers if they are concerned about a friend.
Signs that a student may need more help
- Regressive behaviours of clinginess, crying, and changes in their eating or sleeping patterns.
- Constantly talking about or having intrusive thoughts about the circumstances (e.g. appearing in students’ play or nightmares).
- Avoidance of reminders about the bushfires, such as avoidance of discussion, images or reports about the events.
- Appearing easily startled, fearful, anxious, irritable, angry or on edge.
- Expressing continued concerns about the health and welfare of themselves, family members, pets or significant others.
- Somatic complaints – sometimes in an effort to stay with parents or carers – such as stomach aches, headaches, and generally feeling unwell.
- Any changes in students’ mood, behaviour, concentration, and their ability to learn and get along with peers.
When a student is identified as needing more help either because they have been directly impacted by a bushfire or are showing the above signs, it is important for teachers to seek professional advice.
Further information on the bushfires and coronavirus has been supplied by the Australian Psychological Society (APS):
- Australian bushfires 2020: Psychological preparation and recovery
- Coronavirus: psychologists offer advice for maintaining positive mental health
Berger, E., Carroll, M., Maybery, D., & Harrison, D. (2018). Disaster Impacts on Students and Staff from a Specialist, Trauma-Informed Australian School. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma 11, 521–530.
Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (in press). The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It: Rapid Review of the Evidence.
Burke, S.E.L., Sanson, A.V., & Van Hoorn, J. (2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current Psychiatry Reports 20(5), 35.
Gibbs, L., Nursey, J., Cook, J., Ireton, G., Alkemade, N., Roberts, M., Gallagher, H.C., Bryant, R., Block, K., Molyneaux, R. & Forbes, D. (2019). Delayed Disaster Impacts on Academic Performance of Primary School Children. Child Development, 90, 1402-1412.