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COVID-19 forcing elementary counsellors to adjust

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the provincial government to implement fierce restrictions that prevent students from experiencing in-person learning.

Having to stay at home and limit your social interactions because of a pandemic can have a serious toll on somebody’s mental health. That's true for Alberta's children, too, and anxiety levels among elementary-aged kids are on the rise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the provincial government to implement fierce restrictions over the past year that prevented students from experiencing in-person learning. Students who were accustomed to going to school five days a week and interacting with friends and teachers were now forced to sit in front of a computer screen with little to no face-to-face interaction with people outside of their immediate family.

The measures, which have fluctuated since the pandemic began, were deemed necessary in order to control the level of spread Alberta was seeing. When active cases spiked in early 2021, data in March showed 20 per cent of the province's total COVID-19 cases invovled school-aged children. Most recently, on May 7, the UCP government closed down in-person classes once again and moved most K-12 students to online learning, a measure that just recently relaxed on May 25.

Namira Dossa, a community-based mental health therapist currently working at an Edmonton elementary school, says the concept of anxiety is nothing new when it comes to elementary-aged kids – but the rise that has been seen during the pandemic has been concerning.

“I definitely see an increase in anxiety amongst the children I work with,” said Dossa. “Limited social skills with peers due to not being able to socialize with others because of cohorts or even isolation from friends and family. A lot of tech use and a lot of unhealthy online behaviours."

While kids did have the opportunity to see a therapist or counsellor before the pandemic, they now need to meet with these professionals online.

“We’ve had to adjust to online platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet in order to meet with kids who are in isolation and who are a COVID contact,” said Dossa. “Currently, right now with these two weeks off until May 27, I’m meeting with a lot of my kids online just to be able to connect.”

It sounds like a smooth transition on the surface, but the challenges have been evident. It can be difficult to keep the attention for elementary kids in-person due to how easily distracted they tend to be. Dossa says an online setting amplifies this even more.

“When you work with elementary kids, of course, there is a decreased amount of attention being paid online and that’s just due to regular distractions,” said Dossa. “It’s a lot tougher to counsel a child via Google or Zoom, when normally with play therapy you’re just in the room playing with the child or developing those skills naturally through role-modeling.”

Bridging this challenge has been key in making sure students are getting the help they need. Dossa said she made sure each of the kids she’s counselling had something to bring home so that she could maintain a connection.

“On the last day of school, I sent home some coping skill packages with some of my kids and that would be something they can use over the next couple weeks while they were at home with the expectation that they would be coming back when school is back in-person,” said Dossa. “Things like stress-balls, colouring kits, just little activities and things that kids can resort to when they are feeling a lot more isolated in the next few weeks to help reduce some of the stress and anxiety they may be feeling.

“It depended on the kid what their interests were and I would tailor it to that.”

Not only has accessibility been an issue, but the way in which counsellors approach the unique issues caused by the pandemic matters too. A lot of the anxiety that is being experienced comes from isolation and fear of disease – not a regular part of counsellors' training.

“They teach us a lot on how to approach anxiety, or the major issues – it’s just that now we are seeing it at an increased level amongst kids, especially in elementary schools,” said Dossa. “There’s increased anxiety around getting sick, whereas normally, before COVID, that wouldn’t be a major concern for kids.”

When it comes to what kids can do on their own to help deal with anxiety during the pandemic, Dossa gave a really simple answer.

“Reach out. Reach out to Kids Help Phone, reach out to your school’s support system,” said Dossa. “It’s helpful to have someone that you can trust that is also able to validate and normalize the feelings that a lot of the kids are feeling, because every other kid is feeling that way, but sometimes it's hard to understand or realize that someone else is struggling the same way you are.”

In terms of how these resources can be changed in the future, Dossa says the question shouldn’t be if they are good enough, but rather if they can be better. The stigma surrounding mental health has slowly been breaking down over the past decade and more and more people are willing to seek out help. Dossa thinks there is no limit on how far these resources can be improved.

“I think that mental health resources can always be improved. There could always be more access to mental health services, there could always be some more support within just the school system itself amongst children and school-aged kids,” said Dossa.

Preston Hodgkinson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Great West Media. This story was funded by the Google News Initiative.  

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