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A slow burning fuse?

COVID-19 and its impact on the mental health of school communities.

The upheaval inflicted by COVID-19 on school communities has been widespread: on-again/off-again school closures, the adoption of remote learning and enforced isolation, cancellation of events and rites of passage usually central to the school calendar, and the anxiety caused by prolonged uncertainty.

This report looks at the pandemic’s impact on mental health and wellbeing – primarily on students, but also the teachers and principals at Victorian schools, which faced more disruption than any other schools in Australia in 2020 and 2021.

While we don’t know the long-term impact, this report summarises some of what we do know, based on academic reports and other research undertaken by ISV.

This report highlights the need for continuing research and monitoring to ensure intervention and preventative measures can be put in place. This requires the involvement of parents, teachers, principals and students alike.

The active and coordinated engagement of governments is also crucial, to ensure schools have the resources to protect the health and wellbeing of young people and those who teach them.

Key recommendations include:

Prioritise school-based interventions and support for vulnerable students.
  • Allocate additional resources for schools to better support vulnerable students. This includes developing more effective school-based mental health programs to target prevention, intervention and solutions for referral and rehabilitation.
  • Improve support systems to encourage student-driven mental health initiatives, develop clear mental health responses and communication strategies, and build meaningful community connections.
  • In addition to prioritising at-risk and disadvantaged students, it is important not to leave behind the ‘missing middle’ cohort (i.e. students who have moderate mental health issues, but don’t qualify for treatment from state-based services).
Early intervention and a consistent whole-society approach.
  • Develop a consistent mental health agenda that spans the public health system, critical mental health services, primary care services, the education sector and community-based organisations.
  • Promote awareness, build skills among teachers and parents, develop early intervention initiatives, and reduce stigma and discrimination around mental illness.
  • Provide ongoing support for school communities and address the inequality gap in mental health for vulnerable groups.
Promote data-driven research and development in mental health.
  • Use data-driven approaches to monitor, review and support future planning and the development of mental health services that benefit students, schools and the broader community.
  • Adopt a stakeholder-centred approach to encourage active and meaningful participation from students in the design and delivery of school-based mental health programs.