LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Children across the world are out of school due to the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown, and for those suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues, the experience can be traumatic.
“Now they are finding themselves in lockdown without the safety, the security, the consistency – all of those things that school provides; and many of them are now in homes where it feels disrupted, not as safe, they haven’t got that social contact,” said Bernadette Fisher, the director of the Brentwood Catholic Children’s Society (BCCS).
The charity provides mental health and emotional wellbeing services in over 100 schools across Essex and East London, in the southeast of England.
“We work hand in hand with our schools. We see ourselves as an integral part of the schools, providing therapy to families, to children. We work with staff and provide training for staff, and we provide parenting workshops as well,” she explained during a Zoom press conference.
BCCS provides mental health professionals and social workers to work in schools, meeting with children experiencing social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. The charity also runs workshops for students and provides additional support for school staff and parents.
With such a school-based approach, the lockdown has meant BCCS has had to be creative to provide needed services.
“The context in which we find ourselves now is obviously unprecedented. We have had to change the way that we work completely from being a physical presence in schools to no longer being able to be that,” Fisher said.
She said the charity was preparing for weeks before the expected announcement of school closings and began preparations to support students and their family remotely, but this meant having “to change completely the way in which we work.”
This meant things as basic as learning how to use Zoom and other internet-based services, to more complicated issues, such as rewriting safeguarding and online policies to reflect the new reality.
“We’d like to feel that our children, our young people, our families were very well prepared by us, for this change in working. The key thing for us was being able to fulfil our mission and deliver our services, but in a different way,” Fisher said.
This is especially important, since many of the children BCCS works with come from vulnerable families and are now facing unprecedented disruption their routine.
Fisher said most families have weekly meetings with BCCS staff, just like they did in school, but some are in daily contact, even if it is just a simple check-in by phone.
Although these meetings lack the benefits of in person interactions, she said they have been surprisingly effective.
“I was very, very skeptical to start with about using Zoom to connect with children,” Fisher admitted.
“What I have been amazed with is at the end of that first week of lockdown I got an email from a mum who said: ‘My child just had a 40-minute Zoom session. It’s been wonderful! She played a game. She did roleplay. She talked about her feelings.’ And she said this has given all of us a real boost as a family,” she said.
And it’s not just the children seeking help.
“We are having a lot of conversations with parents who are feeling [like] the not good enough parent … Worrying about juggling work, managing your children,” she explained.
For children, the COVID-19 pandemic can be very frightening, especially for those suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues. BCCS is trying to assist families in explaining the crisis to their children, and to process their emotions.
“I can say this as a parent myself, It’s quite difficult to explain what is happening in the world to children without scaring them, but they are aware of it; so we are providing resources, activities for parents and carers to work with their children and explain about COVID,” Fisher said.
She also said she has written to parish priests in the region, asking them to keep an eye on the families within their parish, in case any need help.
“We are very happy to work with new families, families who are not known to us, because we have got the capacity,” she said.
Looking to the post-pandemic future, Fisher noted that the skills and methodologies BCCS has had to learn due to necessity will continue to be in their toolbox.
“It’s one of these things: Out of some difficult situations, some really good things come…I had never used Zoom until this, so yes, I think it will totally broaden our horizons as to how we work as a charity,” she said, calling it “a brilliant forum for working with families and children who we never would have thought of working in this way before.”
However, she insists it will never replace the core of BCCS’s work.
“I do think we will always be a physical presence in schools, and I think that is really important,” she explained. “I don’t think we can take away from that face-to-face contact, that ability to do activities with children and parents.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome