Children's Mental Health Week in UAE Schools

Today marks the start of Children's Mental Health Week across the world. Keen to find out what part schools have to play in our children's mental health, we spoke to GEMS Education and Nord Anglia International School, Dubai, to explore the issues at hand.
Children's Mental Health Week in UAE Schools
By Jenny Mollon
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Teen mental health is a vitally important subject, and one which can still carry some unhealthy stigma.  We spoke with Marisha Arekat and Graeme Malcolm, Head of Inclusion and Deputy Head of Secondary at Nord Anglia International School Dubai and Sara Hedger, who is head of Safeguarding and Child Protection for the GEMS Education group to better understand the role that schools have to play in our children's mental health and wellbeing.

Common Mental Health Issues in Teens

There are a handful of mental health issues that schools in the UAE see with reasonable frequency. These are anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders. To better understand the presentation of these specific issues, we recommend your read our interview with Clinical Psychologist Jessica Rosslee who explains the warning signs of each condition in detail.

At Nord Anglia International School Dubai (NAS Dubai) Ms Arekat tells us that of these conditions, the most commonly seen is depression.

The prevailing issue we see would be depression, especially in this last year and a half. Teenagers have experienced many challenges as a result of the pandemic, and we are seeing the impact of that.
One thing we have noticed is that teens are increasingly well equipped with information around mental health. This is fantastic in many ways, but we have to remind them not to self-diagnose because they have read an article, nor should they be diagnosing their friends! As a school, we try to help our students to understand what a diagnosis of clinical depression really means, so they know how to identify it properly”.

At GEMS Education, Sara Hedger has responsibility for safeguarding and child protection across the groups’ many schools. Ms Hedger elaborates on the impact of the pandemic.

“Teenagers have had their usual support networks disrupted by school closures and online learning. We’re seeing them ask questions like “Am I the only one feeling like this?”. There’s definitely been an increased sense of isolation which, without the right support, can lead to depression and anxiety”.

Mental Health, the Support that Schools Can Offer

The schools that we spoke to for this special feature had a proactive approach to student mental health awareness and support. Much like mental health conditions themselves, there are a myriad of different approaches, programmes and schemes design to help each student in their own unique way. Fundamental though, and common to both the GEMS Education group and NAS Dubai, is the focus on relationships, communication and pastoral care.

Graeme Malcolm at NAS Dubai tells us that their approach begins with mirroring some best practice seen in primary schools.

“With every student, problems will manifest themselves slightly differently. This means that our approach needs to begin with upskilling and empowering our personal tutors, those teachers who spend the most time with the students every day. That’s best practice we have tried to replicate from primary schools, giving students that one person who gets to know them really well. They are the people who will notice those first subtle changes. We equip them to hear the alarm bells and create a clear path for escalating the issue to the safeguarding team”.

What though for teenagers who do not feel comfortable speaking with adults, even those they have a close bond with? At GEMS Education, “peer to peer” counselling is an increasingly common initiative.

“We offer an international mental health first aid training course via Lighthouse Arabia. It’s a bit like physical first aid, in that there is a process and a framework around which students can have those discussions. Really, it’s about opening a conversation, asking the right questions and getting that person connected with some formal help as quickly as possible”. Sara Hedger GEMS Education

Whatever support schools are able to offer, it remains important that parents and students realise that though schools can help identify problems and take a supportive role in treatment, teaching staff are not trained mental health professionals. In many instances, problems can go beyond the scope of support within school, at which time it becomes essential to invite the help of trained counsellors, therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists.

Although multi-disciplinary working is not quite as common here as in other countries, schools have found their own ways to create informal networks and connections to service providers, as Ms Arekat explains. “I’m part of a UAE inclusion network between lots of different schools. We keep in touch with each other exchanging details and availability of experts. Of course, if there ever was a very serious incident, we would turn to government agencies for support”.

Teen Mental Health Issues, the Warning Signs

Ultimately, every adult involved in a teenager’s life need to be alert to significant changes in their behaviour and outlook. Whether it is a changing behaviour pattern or a difference in their attention and focus in a lesson, knowing and understanding the typical patterns in each individual’s behaviour is vital. We explore the warning signs in more details in our interview with Clinical Psychologist, Jessica Rosslee.

The Role Schools Can Play in Protecting Your Teen’s Mental Health

Graeme Malcolm and his team begin their approach with one simple strategy: conversation!

“We believe in the lost art of conversation!" he says.

"It’s good to see that the KHDA have recognised this too. In the latest Wellbeing Census, there is a new indicator “wellbeing literacy”. We’ve been really happy to see this as it will give us a great idea of how good kids are about talking about their own wellbeing. I’d encourage all parents to make sure there is a time in every day where all devices are off and the family can simply talk, putting anything and everything on the agenda”.

For Sara Hedger, at GEMS, alongside talk, comes listening:

“I had a brilliant morning with a group of teenagers from one of our schools recently. We discussed all sorts of topics around safeguarding and wellbeing, and I asked them what they had found helpful during the pandemic. I was blown away by their responses. They knew exactly what they needed: Adults who ask how they are and really listen to their responses. Interesting and so simple! Just that simple act of us taking a genuine interest and looking out for them had been a real reassurance in a challenging time”.

The Student-Home-School Triangle

Whatever strategy or programme each individual school chooses to implement, what all our educators tell us is that it is the relationship between the student, home and school (and possibly mental health professionals) that matters most.

“We take an around the child approach” says Sara Hedger of GEMS.
“All the people around the outside are the people protecting that child and making sure that the outcomes are the best that it can be for them. In my experience, the way this works most effectively is a partnership between home and school. It is so much more difficult to support the student we aren’t all on the same page”.

As Graeme Malcolm of NAS Dubai would agree,

“If we are not all working together, then things are breaking down. We ask our parents to think about how they are communicating issues from home to school. Even seemingly small issues can have a destabilising effect in class.
"At school, we ask every student to identify their three “go to” people. We even work through different scenarios! For example, if you have bombed in that maths test and you are really upset at break time, who will you talk to then? If you’ve had a huge falling out with your friends at a party at the weekend, and you don’t want to come into school on Sunday – who are you reaching out to? We see that this approach builds resilience and helps students communicate their emotions”.

Whatever way your child’s school chooses to engage with wellbeing and mental health issues, it is clear that it is vital that they do. What is also clear is that this is a key focus for UAE governing bodies. Having spoken to schools for this feature, we believe that there are some fundamentals that all safe and supportive school environments should offer. We advise that parents look for schools that;

  • Provide ongoing development and training to teachers with regard to student mental health and wellbeing
  • Support student led wellbeing initiatives
  • Facilitate mental health awareness programmes and mentoring
  • Provide parents and families with resources and guide them to seek further help when necessary

Do you need the help of an expert when it comes to your child's mental health?  Why not trying writing to the team at Lighthouse Arabia as part of our "Ask the Experts" collaboration.  All questions are kept entirely confidential and submissions are anonymous.  Click here to share your concerns.

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