– October 21 2022
A school year marked by uncertainty impacts the mental health of children
Economics woes, the war in Ukraine and two years of pandemic have led to a mental health crisis among children and young people.
This far-reaching problem is acute in Poland, with the war across the border, a worsening economy, and many Ukrainian children and their families seeking refuge.
“The start of the school year was marked by fear and uncertainty,” says Aleksandra Sikorska, a psychologist with SOS Children’s Villages in Poland.
Children, she says, are wondering if remote learning will come back because of COVID-19 or a lack of heating in schools. Teachers are working with children affected by two years of reoccurring lockdowns and, on top of that, children who fled the war in Ukraine face another level of psychological distress.
Ms. Sikorska says children growing up in alternative care face additional challenges in school due to the traumas they have suffered. Ukrainian children from alternative care, some of whom now live in SOS Children’s Villages in Poland, have the additional burdens from their experience of war.
Ahead of World Mental Health Day 2022, the President of SOS Children’s Villages International Dereje Wordofa, on a recent visit to Poland, highlighted the need to make mental health support equitable: “We must take every opportunity to protect the emotional well-being of all children and young people. SOS Children’s Villages will continue to invest in mental health and psychosocial support for children growing up without parental care and in families facing hardship.”
In Poland, Dr. Wordofa met with care professionals from Poland and Ukraine to discuss their ongoing activities and future plans – these include daily psychosocial support and accessible psychological care for both Polish and Ukrainian children and families, as well as a network of specialist centres that is currently being organized to help refugee children overcome the trauma of war.
Mental health crisis
Globally, 166 million children and young people aged 10-19 live with a mental disorder – 13% of all adolescents. Many more children and young people live with undiagnosed mental health conditions or experience psychological distress that disrupts their daily lives and causes long-term consequences.
The devastating effects the pandemic and other external pressures have on mental health in Poland is reflected in increasingly alarming statistics. In 2021, the rate of suicide attempts among children increased by 77% compared to the previous year. In 2019, over 600 thousand children in Poland needed psychological or psychiatric care.
At the same time, only around 500 child psychiatrists worked in the country. This means that even before the pandemic, access to specialist care was extremely limited, even for families in bigger cities who could afford private health care. Long waiting times for medical appointments made immediate responses to mental health crises impossible. In remote villages, where the stigma around mental health conditions is still strong and many families cannot afford to travel or pay for specialist help, children were often left without support, diagnosis and treatment.
The needs for mental health services are even higher today, given the consequences of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Lukasz Lagod, psychologist at SOS Children’s Villages Poland, says: “Children are smart, mindful observers of the world. My 3 and 5-year-olds ask about the war in Ukraine, even though we do not have a TV at home. It is impossible to shield children from the world or protect them from the concerns their parents have - about the war, their finances or the climate crisis”.
The economic situation in Poland has worsened, with the highest inflation rate in 25 years. Mr. Lagod, who works with families in the family strengthening programmes, continues: “We already see how difficult this school year will be. Many families are already facing economic difficulties, with some parents losing their jobs and others unable to pay off their loans due to increasing rates. The consequences of the pandemic are evident: for almost two years, children were locked out of their natural environment, kept away from their peers in the time crucial for their development. The war in Ukraine started when we were still struggling with the consequences of COVID-19. Given the lack of adequate support systems and the current mental state of society, I am afraid many families will not be able to handle another crisis”.
In eight family strengthening programmes in Poland, SOS Children’s Villages currently supports nearly 1,500 people, including 880 children. The programmes take a holistic approach to mental health, providing families – mostly in remote villages – with continuous access to specialist support free of charge. A good practice already introduced in one of the programmes is to make two psychologists available for every family – one focused on the needs of children and one working with parents and other caregivers. When psychiatric care or other medical intervention is needed, families also receive logistic and financial support.
On top of that, the family strengthening programmes foster soft skills crucial for the emotional well-being of children and parents: those related to communications, recognizing one’s needs and emotions, self-confidence and sense of agency. Mr. Lagod says: “Building self-esteem in children is the pillar of our work. The feeling of self-worth is the key to mental health. If you know who you are and what your strengths and limitations are, you can more easily cope with any kind of crisis.” In 17 daycare centres in Poland, care professionals work with children to help them discover and develop their talents and believe in their abilities.
In the communities where family strengthening programmes operate, the stigma around mental health conditions is reduced. By sharing positive experiences, families build awareness among their neighbors and encourage them to seek help when needed. “Community building is the core of our work,” says Mr. Lagod. “In strong communities, families have the knowledge and tools to help themselves and each other, so that our help is no longer needed.”
To be able to learn, children who have experienced trauma must regain the feeling of security under the care of people with adequate knowledge. To raise mental health awareness among people who care for, teach and work with children, SOS Children’s Villages Poland published the brochure Trauma-informed school. Supporting children affected by trauma in the process of education (English).
“The brochure explains in a simple way what every foster parent, teacher and care professional must know about complex childhood trauma and its neurobiological effects on human development,” says Beata Kulig, advocacy advisor and co-author of the publication. “What teachers need to understand is that children who have experienced trauma have difficulties in school because their brains operate differently than their peers’: they are often on high alert, focused on survival, not on learning. To effectively learn, children must stop being afraid. The trauma they have experienced in relationships with other people can only be healed over time, through lasting, healthy relationships and reoccurring positive experiences.”
Following the publication of the brochure, SOS Children’s Villages Poland led a series of workshops for teachers, social workers and other professionals who may work with children who have suffered trauma. So far, over 1,000 people have taken part. The project, started locally in schools that children from SOS Children’s Villages attend, has been expanded to sensitize wider groups of childcare professionals and raise trauma-awareness on a systemic level.
Text by Magdalena Sikorska, photo by Katerina Ilievska