By Yasmine Sherif – Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait
To achieve SDG4 on quality inclusive education, we must prioritize mental health
The month of May marks mental health awareness month or mental health awareness week in several countries around the world. Many people will be reading posts and blogs about the importance of getting more sunshine and exercise to avoid the blues, about ways to deal with the stress of the pandemic, about dealing with everyday challenges that disrupt our striving for happiness.
But for children and youth caught in emergencies and protracted crises who are living through the extreme stress and adversity of armed conflicts, forced displacement, attacks on schools and climate-induced disasters, the need for mental health and psychosocial support services extends far beyond wellness remedies. It requires a sincere understanding of their suffering and a profound recognition of their resilience.
As we look to care for our own mental health, it is also crucial that we also take action to care for the mental health of the world’s most vulnerable: crisis-affected girls and boys. Their lives torn apart, their dispossession, their fears and soul-shattering experiences can either make or break them.
What has become clear to us at ECW, and the education sector as a whole, is the importance of continuing to invest in and further deepen mental health and psychosocial support – yes there’s a hashtag for that: #MHPSS – across ECW’s broad portfolio of investments.
Every day, ECW and our partners are investing in new ways to provide crisis-impacted children and youth with the safety, hope and opportunity of a quality education that is truly meaningful. For education to have a lasting impact, mental health must be part and parcel of education responses in crisis and displacement contexts. We aim at empowering these girls and boys to find meaning in their suffering, like the great psychoanalyst, Victor Frankl, wrote in his world best-seller “Man’s Search for a Meaning.” Because, at ECW we believe, that their suffering and pains can – with the right MHPSS approach – also be that tipping point for turning their education into a powerful tool for change and achievement.
Imagine girls like Janat Ara, a Rohingya adolescent girl who fled through the night and hid in the forests before finding at least some hope in the refugee camps of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar. Janat, and other adolescents like her, are now back to learning but they need even more support before they can fully return to a place of mental and psycho-social safety, and from there be the young change-makers of their community, society and people.
The Sustainable Development Goals and The Agenda for Humanity set the stage for the humanitarian and development ecosystem to chart a new path forward to ensure that education in emergency and protracted crises programming creates safe, protective environments that promote the wellbeing and healthy development of all girls, boys and adolescents – via meaningful, relevant, quality, holistic education.
These commitments have led to ECW taking a strong stance: school-based and well thought through MHPSS is a required component in every ECW country investment. The logic behind this is that crisis-affected children and youth all have great potential and their experiences can enable them to not only fully learn, but to achieve and actually become their true potential if MHPSS is of the highest standard.
In the same vein, teachers will not be able to successfully support learners, if the well-being of both the students and the teachers are not tended to and supported at the most profound level of understanding what they have gone through and what they can achieve.
To create high-impact public goods that will accelerate MHPSS support for girls, boys and adolescents like Janat Ara, ECW supports a number of key initiatives:
• Just this month, ECW announced new grant funding to support the Norwegian Refugee Council’s “Better Learning Programme (BLP).” The BLP is a best-practice, evidence-informed, school-based, diverse set of MHPSS interventions that is helping children and adolescents across the Middle East and North Africa to heal and cope with displacement, adversity and stress.
• ECW is also announcing a new grant to the Child Protection Area of Responsibility. Led by UNICEF, this focal area fosters localization and coordination to ensure marginalized children and adolescents have access to specialized, focused MHPSS supports in their schools and communities.
• Refugee children and youth have unique needs, and ECW works with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to ensure that girls and boys who have endured displacement and protracted crisis have access to mental health supports and services as part of their education. Together, we are changing the way refugee students are protected and served.
• ECW also works with the International Federation of the Red Cross’s Psychosocial Centre, as a co-chair for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s MHPSS Reference Group. Throughout the unprecedented time of COVID-19 and associated school closures, ECW supported IASC and IFRC to provide rapid MHPSS guidance, trainings and tools to parents, caregivers and teachers across the globe.
• Teacher well-being has a significant impact on student well-being. ECW and INEE’s PSS/SEL Collaborative have joined forces to ensure that Teachers’ mental health and wellbeing is protected and promoted in emergency and crisis contexts.
• Lastly but certainly not least, ECW is rolling out a new unprecedented approach on MHPSS that draws on Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy by which mental health transforms suffering into meaning and hope for the future.
Meeting the needs of the whole-child and effectively delivery on the Global Goals – especially SDG4 – will require a sea change in partners’ collective way of working: education, child protection and health working collaboratively via joint programming and coordination through existing networks and channels. You can learn more about ECW’s work here in our MHPSS Technical Guidance Note.
Today, more than ever, crisis-affected girls and boys around the world need the mental health and psychosocial support they so desperately need and deserve. With that, “they are the ones we have been waiting for”, as Alice Walker once said. With that they can change the world.