Integrating Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in COVID-19 Education Responses

Q&A with Sarah Harrison, International Federation of the Red Cross, Co-Chair, Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Reference Group

In June 2020, ECW joined other donors in contributing funds to support the work of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Reference Group, through a consortium partnership with one of their Co-Chairing agencies: the International Federation of the Red Cross’ (IFRC) Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support.

In this time of pandemic, the IASC MHPSS Reference Group has played a key role in coordinating and taking immediate and rapid action to address children and adolescents’ wellbeing facing unprecedented school closures due to COVID-19.

MHPSS is a core priority of ECW’s investments. It is at the centre of the Fund’s COVID-19 emergency responses in 33 crisis-affected countries and emergency settings in 2020 as well as in ECW’s Multi-Year Resilience Programmes in protracted crises.

ECW: What are some of the MHPSS needs of children and adolescents who are out of school because of COVID-19 related school closures?

Sarah Harrison: Many children and adolescents living in humanitarian settings do not have access to what is necessary to meet their basic needs and protect themselves from the virus. For example, they do not have the ability to physically distance in multi-generational households, nor do they have access to clean water or healthcare when symptomatic. Similarly, many are unable to quarantine or stay home in isolation when weighed against need to obtain a family income and finding food to eat.

Children out of school also have disrupted access to peers and other family members. Social interaction and the formation of positive relationships are key to healthy child development. The closure of informal learning spaces and schools, plus the lack of access to education for migrant children, denies children the safe space to develop positive social relationships, to play and learn with their peers, and to develop and practice social and cognitive skills.

ECW: The IFRC Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support and the IASC MHPSS Reference Group have published several key resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us more about these?

Sarah Harrison: The IASC MHPSS Reference Group has produced a number of publications over the past 11 months in relation to COVID-19. [All are available on the Reference Group website in multiple languages.]

All products were developed with strong involvement of end users (humanitarian practitioners at country level – individual volunteers, caregivers, teachers, MHPSS staff from humanitarian organisations and affected populations for some products). End users were consulted on the generation of content, reviewing content provided, providing input to graphic illustrations, translations, and the overall need for a product.

  • Briefing Note: Released in February 2020 in response to the virus outbreak in Eastern Asia, this Briefing Note was subsequently updated in March 2020 as the virus spread became more global. It is aimed at policy makers and programme planners.

  • Basic Psychosocial Skills Guide: Released in May 2020 to help agencies and frontline responders bridge the gap between providing immediate psychological first aid and the long term accompaniment and support for populations now that the impact of the virus has stretched out into months and potentially, years. The guide was written in a pictographic/ illustrative way with frontline emergency responders and essential workers (e.g. delivery persons, police officers, community health & social care workers, shopkeepers, pharmacists) – anyone interacting with public and supporting essential services during the lockdown in respective countries.

  • Children’s storybook My Hero is You – and its country level initiatives/ adaptations: Now available in over 131 languages, the book has undergone adaptations into animations with support from Stamford University, puppet shows in Iran, radio dramas in Gaza & Palestine, audio format in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, South Sudan, Niger and Myanmar (among many other countries), read by Royal families over the radio, TV & YouTube in many countries, a Braille version is available produced by a group of blind mothers from Zimbabwe as are multiple sign language versions. [Learn more about how the book was made in this video].

    My Hero Is You is the most downloaded product on the IASC website and the fastest book to be translated ever into so many languages. A second book, Action for Heroes is now underway and focuses on the same characters and their return to regular activities and school, in addition to key facilitator notes for parents, children’s activity facilitators and teachers to use within their work.

  • Operational Guidance Note on Multi-sectoral MHPSS Programmes: Released in May 2020, the note aims to help operational humanitarian organizations prioritize their MHPSS activities, to make judgment calls on which activities to continue and how to adapt them in relation to the severity of the virus outbreak. It offers highly practical and operational guidance covering the full spectrum of MHPSS programming.

ECW: Bearing in mind the lessons learned from COVID-19, what are your recommendations for the education sector to ‘build back better’?

Sarah Harrison: Building back better requires governments and the international community enforce that education is open and accessible to all girls and boys on their territory – this means including children who are refugees, children who are migrants, children with disabilities alongside the ‘regular school-age population’.

It means ensuring that schools are regarded as protected areas free from attacks: schools are free from bombing and unexploded ordnance/mines, children are not abducted from school or on their way to/from school, teachers learn positive discipline approaches, schools are not used by the military/armed interlocutors or used as temporary shelters for unnecessary lengths of time in natural disasters, etc.

Teachers also need to be paid fairly and on time – it is their right and feeds into teacher well-being. A happier and healthier teacher is a more positive teacher and role model for children. Additionally, creation of parent-teacher associations and groups to help address parent’s queries in relation to COVID-19, can reinforce the link between caregivers and their children’s education.

Finally, in order to ‘build back better’ the education sector will need to equip teachers with practical tools on how to manage children who present with behavioural challenges, how to help a distressed learner, how to talk about conflict and emergencies, how to talk about COVID-19 and its impacts, and how teachers can concretely change lessons plans and daily structure to adapt to children and adolescents who are coming back to school.