Urgent need for school-based mental wellbeing programs
COVID’s impact on decades of progress
It’s not possible to talk about the current and future promise of school-based mental and emotional wellbeing programs without first addressing the impact that COVID-19 is having across the world, particularly on vulnerable youth in low and lower-middle-income countries | LMICs.
First, we know this virus does not affect everyone equally. Rather, the virus, like all disasters, both natural and man-made, is taking advantage of pre-existing inequalities, with impacts that will reach all aspects of society.
Today, over 1 billion youth—13% of the world’s population—live in LMICs. 600 million in this group are girls. Confronted by systemic poverty, marginalization, and discrimination, these youth were already disproportionately vulnerable and had fewer assets and access to support prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
Huge gains that had been made over the last 25 years through the UN Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals | SDGs, in health, education, and poverty alleviation have quite literally been erased in just the last few months.
The World Bank estimates that the number of people in extreme poverty due to COVID-19 is projected to increase by 150 million.
Millions of families who had been making strides out of extreme poverty will now be pushed back into poverty, thereby exacerbating even further the education gap that we know exists between rich and poor—whereby children from the poorest households are significantly less likely to complete primary and lower secondary education.
School closures also represent a loss of social protection for girls and young women, making them more vulnerable to child marriage, early pregnancy, gender-based violence, trafficking, and child labor—all of which in turn decrease the likelihood of continuing their education.
Mental health in distress
These disruptions and risks are taking a toll on the mental and emotional wellbeing of youth, particularly girls and young women. Fear, separation, isolation. This is what youth all over the world are facing right now.
Against this backdrop, it’s important that we all—educators, practitioners, researchers, and the like—take a step back and ask ourselves honestly what role school-based wellbeing programs should play in a COVID and the post-COVID-19 world, particularly in LMICs.
Typically, those of us in the positive psychology and resilience-building community speak about the teaching of wellbeing and academics in schools, as a partnership of sorts, where the two go hand in hand and provide a roadmap of attitudes, skills, and support to help build a flourishing life.
However, I believe that the urgency and promise of these programs are far greater than that.
The opportunity in a global crisis
Teaching wellbeing, particularly the skills of personal resilience, represents an opportunity to address and change underlying inequalities pervasive in LMICs around the world—inequalities that are worsening daily in the pandemic, and which may hinder any chance of millions of youth to reach for a better life.
In fact, in the unfolding crisis, I believe that the promise of resilience training should best be viewed in two ways—as a ‘response’ to the myriad of social and economic stressors currently facing youth—and as an opportunity for ‘inoculation’ against future challenges.
Investment needed to yield life-changing dividends
When we invest in building mental, emotional, and social wellbeing, we are, by extension, investing in the possibility of a multiplier effect—in health, in education, in rights, in gender equality, in reproductive and sexual health, in poverty alleviation and so much more.
Unfortunately, in responding to the needs of millions of children who will no longer be in school due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, all such programs will face serious challenges in great part because of the limited technological infrastructure in place to serve the poor.
Investments from the tech community and governments in this area are urgently required if we are to avoid a catastrophe that will span across both the education and wellbeing of today’s youth.