‘The elephant in the room’: Anxiety and mental health as B.C. kids head back to school

Justine Harris-Owen will start her graduating year at a Vancouver high school in four days, and she’s anxious about it as she prepares to head back to class amid COVID-19.

“It’s really nerve-wracking because no one really knows what’s going on,” she told Global News.

“My sister has asthma. I want to go to school and get my education and be able to be social, but I have to protect her and my household, so not being able to go out is just difficult, but it’s necessary.”

British Columbia’s students will head back to class on Sept. 10, under new protocols that will vary by school district.

Common to all the plans are staggered start and break times, “learning cohorts,” increased hand hygiene and masks in certain situations.

The province says it’s confident the measures are the best shot it has at keeping the virus at bay, while critics, including the teachers’ union, have said it’s not enough.

But while there’s been plenty of focus on the big physical health questions, Harris-Owen’s experience offers a window into the major mental health questions many B.C. students are asking.

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“This is the elephant in the room,” Dr. Christine Korol, a registered psychologist and director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, told Global News Morning BC on Sunday.

“We’re not talking about all the feelings that kids and teachers are having right now, there’s a lot of anxiety so I think that needs to be addressed more specifically.”

Korol said her practice has been busy in recent weeks both with students and with teachers who are anxious about the term to come.

“Even with some of the guidelines that have been put out there, it’s hard for people to imagine what it’s going to look like,” she said.

Teachers will need to work with students to make the experience feel safe, she said, adding that kids can’t learn if teachers are anxious.

She said she’s also been working with clients on how to be assertive if they aren’t feeling safe.

“How to feel comfortable saying when they are feeling uncomfortable,” she said. “Most people feel silly or foolish if they want to speak up.”

Teachers need to be upfront about making space for the pandemic and its emotional impacts in the classroom, added clinical psychologist Pierre Faubert.

“Allow for some kind of moment in the classroom where the students can maybe share a little bit about how they’re feeling, and that way there will be a sense of community and of belonging,” he said.

Harris-Owen says she hopes that teachers and administrators are open to the mental health concerns of their students and that the mental strain of possibly bringing the virus home to her parents or grandparents will weigh on her daily.

“I know the school is putting in a lot of work to try and get everything regular and get us back to school,” she said.

“But I don’t think there is a solution they can implement that’s going to be good enough at this time and with what we know, and that kind of just increases anxiety more.”

In the meantime, she says she’s taking it a day at a time and will be wearing a mask when class is back in session.

“I can be hopeful that things will get better and maybe I’ll have a graduation ceremony,” she said. “That would be wonderful.”

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