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How one Winnipeg school is tackling student mental health amid the pandemic

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The pandemic has weighed heavily on the mental well-being of youth. But how much can be done to address it? As Marney Blunt reports, one Windsor Park Collegiate educator is looking into it through her masters research – Jan 27, 2022

There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly everyone’s mental well-being, but it has possibly weighed most heavily on young minds.

A student services teacher at Windsor Park Collegiate is looking into just that through her masters research, as well as how to address the lasting mental impact on youth.

“One of the main things is matter — feeling a sense of mattering and what makes them feel like they matter,” Jocelyn MacLeod told Global News.

“Those core transition years are periods of identity development, where it’s tough on them as it is to figure out who they are. And students can’t learn if they’re stressed.”

Read more: Mental health struggles intensify as the pandemic continues on

MacLeod says although there is still some stigma around mental health, it’s much more openly discussed now, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made schools and school divisions make it a top priority.

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She also says last school year, the focus was mainly on dealing with remote learning and getting through the curriculum, but now schools are able to take a step back.

“There’s no longer a rush to the finish line of the curriculum. Last year we were feeling a bit more of that because we didn’t know when the next remote learning period would come, and remote learning doesn’t work well for everyone,” she said.

“So there’s a constant rush to finish the curriculum, whereas this year I’m seeing the mental health effects on kids and saying, OK, maybe we need to slow things down a little bit and spend that time getting to know the kids.”

She also says it’s now something that all school staff are focusing on and watching for, not just the guidance counsellors.

“In the past it was always, OK come to student services if you need help. If you want to talk about your problems, come to student services,” MacLeod said “And now the need is so large that it’s everybody’s responsibility.”

And that includes the parents.

“We get more calls from parents concerned about their kids’ mental health — and I never got as many as that in the past,” MacLeod added.

“Quite often, we’ll have parents call and say, ‘Hey, can you check on my kid today?’ And it’s just so comforting to know that they’re aware of their kids’ mental health.”

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Read more: Two years into pandemic, effects of COVID-19 on youth mental health a growing concern

Travis Hoare, an occupational therapist at Windsor Park Collegiate who works with students in the school’s specialized program, says he’s seeing the impact of isolation on them, and while many students turn to technology for socialization during pandemic lockdowns, for many of his students, that’s not always an option.

“Not a lot of my students hop on Instagram and TikTok, right, they don’t have the capabilities or the ability to text friends and FaceTime them,” Hoare said.

“So when we do have these periods away, they do kind of lose those social interactions, that special community. So when they come back there is some anxiety. Some work to be done to rebuild those connections and feel a sense of belonging again. Sometimes they can be a little bit isolated at home, so it’s important to take the time to re-work on that and foster those relationships.”

Pandemic’s wide-ranging impacts on students

Grade 7 student Leighton Single says for her, remote learning during the pandemic has its pros and cons.

“I definitely liked in-person more because of socializing with your friends is really important to me and a lot of other people,” Single said.

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“So I definitely found that was hard for remote learning, but I found in remote learning I definitely was better with being more independent and getting my work done, so that really helped me.”

Social media and technology were a big help as well.

“I definitely think social media and messaging and FaceTiming your friends has really helped. There are negative things on social media, but I think it really helped me in this type of situation.”

Grade 10 student Jean-Pierre Ngegba was not a fan of remote learning, at all.

“Hated it, to be completely honest. It kind of felt like a disconnect,” Ngegba said.

“Because one of the great things about school is you intertwine with different people, you learn different things — not just from your teachers and your friends but the staff — whereas with remote learning it’s kind of like, ‘Get this done.’ You don’t really have (those) human interactions there. And I, as a social person, I hated it.”

Ngegba says the pandemic created a lot of stress on him and his classmates.

“The remote learning, that was what really got me stressed. School was my way to get positive energy when you can’t get it from yourself, that’s how I see school,” he said.

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“This pandemic, yes it’s hit us hard and it will continue to hit us, but the more that we are with each other, we help each other be better and we help each other stay safe and take care of one another, I think that’s the best thing we can do. Like, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been tired, I’ve been burnt out repeatedly, but it’s people like the teachers, it’s people like my friends that keep me going.”

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