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COVID-19Digital Empathy

How Counsellors Can Use Digital Empathy to Help Children Cope with the effects of COVID-19

By May 24, 2020October 22nd, 2021No Comments

“As a youth health doctor, there were many times where the discomfort of stigma, embarrassment or shame might prevent a teen from sharing important information. This is where compassion, empathy, listening and acknowledgement are so critical.”

– Dr. Sandy Whitehouse

Like many children his age, Rowan has experienced a lot of anxiety about the remainder of his school year since classes stopped due to COVID-19 back in March. While he’s tried to adapt to the online learning and support his parents have provided, Rowan is looking forward to seeing his friends when he goes back to high school. Like everyone else, he’s not sure when that will be. He has a lot of questions about how he will manage.

Will he be able to keep up with his friends on the sports field? Can he get back on track with his schoolwork? How will he manage his grades? Will of this impact his prospects with university?

With all these doubts, Rowan has had a hard time opening his books at home or going outside. Some days he feels himself slipping into a state of mind where he doesn’t even care.

Rowan is not alone in this scenario. Many students are feeling the impact of isolation with signs of anxiety and depression. A quick scan of the research demonstrates the issue:

  • Healthy Children suggests social distancing, used to slow the spread of COVID-19, has been especially hard on teens. Many miss the social contact with their friends and are experiencing big letdowns as graduations, proms, sports seasons, college visits and other long-planned events are cancelled or postponed.
  • The Toronto Star, has found that nearly 60 percent of Ontario parents have seen changes in their children’s behaviour since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those changes include outbursts, extreme irritability, drastic mood changes, difficulty sleeping and persistent sadness.

“The COVID-19 pandemic may worsen existing mental health problems and lead to more cases among children and adolescents because of the unique combination of the public health crisis, social isolation, and economic recession,” the article reads. “Economic downturns are associated with increased mental health problems for youth that may be affected by the ways that economic downturns affect adult unemployment, adult mental health, and child maltreatment.”

In a Global News interview, mental health strategist and speaker Mark Henick says there will be a lasting impact on societal mental health after COVID-19.

While this raises concerns with Rowan’s family, friends, and teachers as they can see the changes and want to help, administrators and counsellors have even longer-term cause for concern as the return to school is not likely to end Rowan’s anxiety and depression. This means Rowan and many of his friends and fellow-students will soon return to school with lingering mental health concerns.

“There is going to be residual stress, depression, financial pressures, learning how to re-engage with the world in this new way,” Henick says, adding that people who are faced with trauma experience a peak-and-valley response in their nervous system.

“Right now, we are at a peak”

“Right now, we are at a peak, in which we are engaging with the immediate threat of the pandemic. You go into survival mode, which can be very taxing on a person’s mental health… Once the pandemic is over, there will be a valley, in which we recover from that threat. (However), going back to baseline without support can take a lot longer than we may think.”

All of this suggests that we need to take a more proactive approach to assess and support our youth in terms of their mental health. The good news is that there is a growing body of work being done around the world on this. School-based health advocates are working tirelessly to do adapt these innovative solutions from before the pandemic to our new reality.

Mental health screening tools given to the entire student body, when deployed effectively and empathetically, support administrators and staff in identifying their needs to ensure students’ physical and mental safety.

Screening solutions have been proven to work, and they will be all the more vital in the midst of COVID-19. In the return to schools, the challenges of receiving accurate information to support our kids will be even greater. If we can’t see these youth in the hallways of our schools, or watch how they are interacting with friends and colleagues, we will have even less information to alert us to problems.

School districts are already using mental health screeners such as Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) along with Rapid Adolescent Prevention Screening (RAAPS) to effectively identify needs and connect students to resources. These screening tools have the potential to be more effective than awkward conversations about personal information from school staff or general announcements from the administration about the importance of reaching out for help. Instead, by using wide-reaching, effective screening tools, we can accurately and efficiently identify needs and connect students to supports.

These are all questions that School counsellors and Administration will need answers to in order to help teens such as Rowan.

“As a youth health doctor, there were many times where the discomfort of stigma, embarrassment or shame might prevent a teen from sharing important information. This is where compassion, empathy, listening and acknowledgement are so critical,” states Dr. Sandy Whitehouse, CMO of Tickit Health. As we move into a more digital and virtual world, we have found an important place for encompassing these values into the technology we use with young people, using a strategy we call Digital Empathy to help people feel comfortable and in a safe space, to meet them ‘where they are at’ and listen before responding.”

Is isolation preventing kids from connecting with school resources like counsellors and how do we hurdle these barriers?

Checking in with students before school re-opens in empathetic ways can allow students to feel safe in opening up about their feelings and anxieties. Tickit is a youth-friendly digital platform that goes beyond simple text-based surveys and makes students and other respondents feel heard. As a result, youth share more personal information, providing a richer set of data to the organizations serving them.

Tickit’s Digitally Empathetic approach to capturing data also delivers personalized feedback to each student to enhance the context and meaning of questions, thus improving engagement and honest responses.

Tickit has the standardized and validated tools to assess a youth’s mental and physical well-being, including social determinants such as nutrition and exercise, as well as the ability to connect with school-sanctioned resources to provide supportive services.

Tickit’s youth-focused screening and counselling tools identify at-risk behaviours by providing a safe place to share information at a time convenient for them and can enable remote counselling to ease the transition back to school, as well as prepare educators and administrators for what lingering issues their student bodies will be experiencing.

Click here to discover more about Tickit’s screening tools.