Psychiatrist Pat McGorry said the pandemic was causing issues for young people who were “really suffering”, along with their parents. He said programs that helped parents were important.
“Young people can’t survive and flourish unless the scaffolding around them is strong and able to cope. We all know that the parents of Victoria are really struggling at the moment. The teachers are. And the mental health workforces as well,” Professor McGorry said.
John Chellew is director of the St Kilda-based School Refusal Clinic, which works with children who feel unable to attend school when classes are on. He said when schools were open, about 5 per cent of children felt they could not attend. The longer children were out of school, the more difficult it was to get them to return, he said.
Mr Chellew expects the percentage of children not attending once school returns will rise to about 15 per cent.
He said schools were trying to engage children as best they could and for many students – particularly those struggling with social anxiety – online learning worked well. “They don’t have the worries about engaging with their peers,” he said. “They haven’t got the pressure of classroom and playground worries.”
Mr Chellew does some telehealth but much of his treatment with children is conducted while walking and talking in the park, allowed under the state’s COVID-19 rules if masks are worn and social distance is maintained.
He always has his therapy dog Max – a three-year-old Pomeranian crossed with a Japanese spitz – with him during these sessions.
“Some mothers [report] their children have had difficulty engaging with counselling online, so when they come to a park to meet a guy with a dog, they really enjoy it and want to come back.”
Mr Chellew said many students had not engaged with online learning, despite the effort of teachers. “Particularly boys because they tend to learn more by doing rather than sitting behind a screen.”
He said many children were having sleep difficulties, with some seeking the support of their parents at night. “These kids are feeling disconnected because all of their normal activities – playing, competing, having fun, climbing trees, playing socially, engaging in team sports – they have all of this emotional energy that isn’t being expended as it used to be.”
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