Maintaining wellbeing and mental health

Wellbeing and mental health are everywhere now. Our awareness of its importance in not only students’ lives, but everyone’s, has become the second biggest issue during the COVID-19 crisis, after hand washing. 

On the plus side, there is so much information about protecting our mental health during physical distancing and social isolation. For me, it’s almost been too much. We can fall into rabbit holes of self-care and different ways to deliver wellbeing messages to students. These are the ways I have seen our approach to wellbeing develop during the COVID-19 crisis: 

1. Connection 

As we retreated to our homes and living rooms, we realised very early that we cannot live on text alone. We saw the importance of the physical, those social connections that nourish us. For some students, that realisation came too late in the day. They were grumpy in the afternoon, and then realised it was because they hadn’t spoken to anyone that day. We promoted phone conversations and video chats. As teachers, we tried to replicate that first few minutes of class for chit chat in Zoom, without echoing throughout everybody’s living rooms.

But, I hope we all leave this crisis remembering what it felt like to be lonely, and to feel isolated. To check in on the friends and family living on their own, and put a phone to our ears rather than to our thumbs. 

2.  Perspective and optimism 

Since the first lockdown of 2020, we have had a very safe and normal experience of COVID-19. It is important to remember this as we navigate this current lockdown.

Overseas we saw epic mismanagement of the same crisis we are going through. Our governments have kept us safe, have flattened the curve, and we are seeing the light at the end of a very surreal tunnel. We may not be travelling overseas anytime soon, unless you want to visit Hobbiton, but the tyranny of distance we have bemoaned has given us more safety than any other country. 

Despite our relative safety, we still dealt with a lot of unknowns, as teachers not knowing when we would be back at school, or when it will be safe. As parents, not knowing how to role model calm when we were anything but calm. Professor Lea Waters discusses the need to be emotional coaches for our children, and recognise they absorb and try to process our emotions while also dealing with their own. 

The language of emotions will help through this, as will naming emotions. It is ok to be frustrated, or angry, or annoyed. We are feeling all the feels, and by giving our children the language to name their feelings, they’re better equipped for life after this crisis, and less baffling for you during it. 

3. Finding and holding onto hope

Author and Stella Prize winner Jess Hill said “we can hold despair in one hand, and hope in the other,” and that is exactly what we need to do. We hear more and more good news, and we are grabbing onto it. The news cycle very quickly changed from needing to lockdown to lockdown exhaustion. It is important to avoid complacency, and to avoid too much news. News overload is a real thing, and as Hugh Mackay says in an interview with Conversations on ABC Radio, he reads the news in the morning, then that is it. The news isn’t going to change our behaviour, and if there is some really big news, you know someone will tell you. There are people who have to follow everything happening in the news all day every day, but that is not our job. So to lessen anxiety, give yourself a break from the news. 

4. Wondering what the world will look like

We already know what the world will be like, because for most of the past few months, we have been living it.  While we wait for vaccine supply to increase, our own behaviour and actions are what is stopping it becoming a pandemic of US proportions. As Leigh Sales said on ABC’s 7.30 a few weeks ago: 

“You are our best hope of stopping Coronavirus. Your individual behaviour is the most important thing to prevent it spreading and everything else flows from that.”

In our local area we had beaches shut down, reopened, then shut down again because people haven’t been able to practise physical distancing, and that’s a lack of personal responsibility. How do we take this concept of the importance of personal responsibility that we’ve all had to carry over the past few weeks and keep it going? My four year-old is the most responsible ‘sneezer’ and fastidious hand washer, and it’s important we don’t let that fall by the wayside. 

It is students who have been impacted the most, with classrooms being relocated to their homes, and their social infrastructure disappear in an instant, that have had to carry some of the most personal responsibility during this. We’re usually told that responsibility is an anathema to teenagers, who are constantly forgetting to wear their uniform correctly. Instead, they have shown more maturity, perspective and initiative during the past few months, second only to local cafes that have done some serious redesigning to protect their staff and operations. 

But maybe, another reason to consider personal responsibility is that one of the causes of anxiety for people during this crisis has been a loss of control and autonomy. Not being able to go for a drive, or watch movies with friends can seem scary. By focusing on our own personal responsibility, and trying to regain control within our own lives, through setting clear routines or limiting ourselves from certain vices (eg, Netflix), we realise the impact of our own actions. While we’re not fully in control, we have more responsibility than we thought. 

5. What have we actually learned? 

How foolish would it be to come out of this pandemic without actually changing? Everybody accepts that the ‘new normal’ will not be what we’re used to, and that pandemics like this could happen again. We have learned how to stay home and wait things out. 

I hope we have learned to appreciate those who can’t work or study from home. They may not be the jobs our students think they want when they finish school, but they are jobs we need for everything else to keep going. So I hope we have gratitude for those that kept working. 

I hope we have learned the significance of loneliness. How debilitating it is and how we have now all been in that hole in one way or another, and know how to get out of it. Don’t let friends or family members fall through the cracks anymore. Set up rosters to call Gran, or visit your uncle. Send a text message to a friend, and reach out more than people reach out to you. 

I hope we’ve learned that kindness is easy to do, and safe. That there is great creativity to be found in doing things differently, and kindness does not have to be reserved for those in our proximity.

And ultimately, I hope we are all aware of how important it is to protect our wellbeing. To develop the protective factors making us resilient and able to face not only the next crisis, but daily life.

Ms Daisy Turnbull
Director of Wellbeing

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