The world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has nearly crippled the education and employment sectors, among others. The two sectors – education and employment – directly and indirectly affect learning and learning outcomes. Without finances, parents are unable to provide their children with basic educational needs like books, uniforms, meals, and transport costs.
Likewise, lack of or inadequate finances at the school level hinder delivery or provision of quality education since schools become unable to provide a quality learning environment, including appropriate infrastructure for both teachers and learners, better salaries to non-permanent teachers, and other learning resources such as books.
While the linkages between work, finances and the lack thereof are certain for adults, the impact of the same on children remains unclear.
According to World Health Organisation, it is estimated that up to 20 per cent of children and adolescents globally are affected by mental health challenges, with nearly half of all mental health incidences beginning at the age of 14. The leading mental health problems affecting students, especially adolescents and young adults, are anxiety, depression, suicide, attention-deficit, addiction and eating disorders.
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Caregivers’ inability to provide educational materials and support can immensely contribute to or worsen this group’s mental health. Other than parental/guardian inability to provide learners with basic needs, issues to do with teenage pregnancies in developing countries contribute to increased mental anguish. As it stands, with the Covid-19 situation, parents stare at more challenges that would trigger or worsen mental health problems among children and adolescent learners.
The school closures that have been imposed in many countries across the world as part of social distancing measures mean that many children have been forced into isolated learning. Consequently, negative learning outcomes are a likely occurrence that parents should expect as a result of lack of face-to-face interaction between pupils and their teachers.
The pandemic has also increased paranoia and suspicion - everybody is potentially Covid-19 positive - and imposed a stigma against those who do test positive. Children and adolescents have learnt this ‘prejudice’ through association or learning. For this reason, when physical classes resume, as planned by the Ministry of Education, it will not be surprising to see or hear learners subjecting their classmates to this mistrust.
The practice, widespread or in isolated cases, would not only result in isolated learning among learners but would also lower learners’ self-esteem. The latter would be worse for learners who even under normal circumstances suffer from this condition.
Thirdly, learners from advantaged families are likely to come to school with more and varied personal protective equipment like masks, sanitisers, and clothing among other materials. Learners from poor households – urban and rural – attending the same school or class with those from advantaged families may have limited or lack altogether such protective gears.
Such wealth dynamics ordinarily affect the mental health of learners from disadvantaged families. Covid-19 is likely to worsen the situation, and could eventually result in poor learning outcomes, interactions and mental health.
It is, therefore, important to be aware that even as we plan for schools’ re-opening, we should prepare to deal we some mental health and related challenges.
Specifically, parents should take due diligence in observing their children to note if they exhibit some or all of the symptoms of mental health challenges, including whether their children react apathetically and negatively to most things than before, do not like the things or activities they once enjoyed, exhibit extreme sadness or anger, often talk about suicide or death, and don't attend social events or classes.
In doing so, they should focus/pay attention to their children’s mental health well-being, including the emotional, physical well-being (changes in sleep and sleep habits) and thinking symptoms. When parents observe changes in their children in light of any of the above behaviours, they should seek immediate and appropriate help.
-Mr Ochieng' is a research officer at the African Population and Health Research Center