I am acutely aware of the challenges faced by students, teachers and families at this difficult time. The welfare of students and that of their families is front and centre in all decision making. My Department has worked closely with the Department of Health and the HSE on the In This Together campaign which aims to help everyone in Ireland to Stay Connected, Stay Active, and look after their Mental Wellbeing throughout the Covid-19 Emergency. The In This Together campaign draws together the huge range of advice and support that is available for people of all ages. To support the wellbeing and mental health of our Leaving Certificate students at this time, a dedicated page on the InThis Together site contains online advice for Leaving Certificate students. This webpage includes a series of supports on managing wellbeing, stress and anxiety, developed by NEPS. The webpage also includes links to more individualised support for students to access, should these be needed. It is recognised that some vulnerable groups of students may require a more focused, stepped-up level of intervention and the Department has worked with the Department of Health and HSE to ensure the most appropriate services and resources are clearly signposted for those students. A planning group has been established by my colleague, the Minister for Health and includes representatives from the Department of Health, the HSE, and the NGO sector, in recognition of the fact that prior to, during and following national emergencies there is a need to support certain members of the population with their emotional, cognitive, social and physical needs.
The stepped care approach recognises that at present, there already exists services that offer online text and telephone supports to people seeking mental health information and advice. These include the Samaritans; Pieta House; MyMind; Turn2Me; Aware; Crisis Text Ireland; Shine; BeLongTo; LGBT Ireland; Jigsaw; Bodywhys and Childline. The YourMentalHealth.ie website provides a ‘one-stop-shop’ portal for people seeking information, supports and services, including information on accessing urgent help and a mental health text messaging support service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days each week to connect people with trained volunteers. These services augment the work of NEPS and assist students who may be feeling anxious at this time. In addition, additional support services have been identified for the general population that can assist students and their families at this time.
During this challenging time the school building may be closed but schools have structures in place to support students. It has often been the case, that the first port of call for Leaving Certificate students who are experiencing distress has been their school. Schools have developed excellent and flexible systems of support. Many schools have a designated Student Support Team, while other schools have equivalent systems and structures, but may use different terminology to describe their arrangements, such as ‘Care Team’ or ‘Pastoral Care Team’. Either way, the structures schools have in place will continue to have a key role identifying issues and students for discussion by the Student Support Team with appropriate action/ follow-up. In these uncertain times, the familiarity of these school structures and personnel will offer continuity and reassurance to students. A guidance document for Post-Primary Schools on supporting the wellbeing of students and the role of Student Support Teams was written by NEPS and has been published by my Department.
NEPS psychologists continue to be available to provide advice and support to school principals, teachers, students, parents. NEPS provides consultation for school staff who may have concerns about individual students. NEPS supports schools in putting interventions in place for students with identified difficulties, and in signposting to more specialist support, when needed, including onward referral to the HSE and other local mental health services.
NEPS is proactively exploring a number of innovative ways to continue to provide educational psychological services to school communities at this time.
My Department is developing a plan for supporting the wellbeing of school communities as part of the plan for reopening schools. A key element of supporting wellbeing at this time is the need for schools to manage and support transitions, including those transitions that have been impacted by school closures. Neps is developing guidance on transitions for all students including students with special and additional needs.