Calls for more mental health support for Highland youngsters have been made as pupils return to school from the Christmas break.
A young campaigner from Skye told the Free Press of the worrying experiences he had witnessed among contemporaries during two years of the pandemic.
And the pleas were echoed by the education chair of Highland Council, who urged the UK and Scottish Governments to make the wellbeing of school pupils a priority in the year ahead.
Skye Councillor John Finlayson’s comments came after a record number of more than 20,000 cases of Covid-19 recorded across Scotland just a few days before schools returned in the region.
The council’s education chair said Highland Council was committed to getting young people back to school and believed there should be a big push for 12–15-year-olds to receive the Covid-19 vaccines.
Expanding on the matter of how coronavirus had impacted education, the former head teacher said he believed that the pandemic had acutely affected the social and mental wellbeing of youngsters.
“There is no argument against the fact that this pandemic is having an impact on young peoples’ education, Councillor Finlayson told the Free Press.
“We have lived through two years that are completely different to any period in education we have ever seen.
“While the impact on the academia side of things has been a real concern, the other side effects relating to mental health and wellbeing, socialisation, developing and sustaining relationships are also crucial.
“The curriculum in its broadest sense is everything that happens in a school. So much of what we learn in terms of socialisation and relationships does not happen in a classroom but across all the other day to day activities and interactions that take place.
“It is a huge issue. Our young people have lost a lot in terms of their formal education but for me, they have also lost a massive amount in terms of the other areas of development that their education brings.”
Portree High School pupil Luke Eveling, who has published a book about facing mental health challenges as a teenager on Skye, believes the pandemic had taken a toll on his age-group.
He said: “Lockdown and the pandemic more widely definitely had an effect on young people in school. A lot of my friends are finding it hard to cope with exams and more broadly the pandemic simultaneously. This has influenced how well they are doing at school.
“I have a few friends who have turned to serious drug abuse as a way of coping with the combined pressure, and others have stopped going to school completely.”
In April 2021, Luke bravely shared his own challenges through his book ‘A Series of Essays About Mental Health’.
Within the book, Luke, who lives in Broadford, wrote frankly about a wide range of issues including heartbreak, peer pressure, drug abuse, and suicide.
Speaking to the Free Press at the time, Luke talked about being diagnosed with Asperger’s and coping with isolation during the pandemic.
While last year Luke spoke warmly about the “overwhelming support” he had received from family, friends and the wider community after opening up about his own circumstances, he believed more support services should be made available to help other young people.
He added: “There are some, but there just isn’t enough for everyone. Things like having a school counsellor sound good but just don’t seem to reach everyone who needs help.”
Councillor Finlayson added: “We know the importance of mental health – people are nervous about the pandemic and have not been able to socialise as before. We already have and will continue to have a situation where some young people will really struggle to get back to being with their peers and to sustaining positive relationships.
“Parents are rightly concerned. Their children are in a totally unique situation given the global scope of the pandemic and the impact it has had and will continue to have on how education is delivered.
“Supporting all aspects of education in its widest form needs to be a priority for all levels of government from the UK Government to Scottish Government to local government.
“We all need to realise that the young people who have been in schools for the last two years have been disadvantaged in many different ways.
“We need to take account of this going forward in terms of additional resources and possibly a catch-up curriculum and perhaps even more importantly, support for all aspects of young people’s health and wellbeing including mental health.”
Assessing the lay of the land in schools across the region, Councillor Finlayson said: “Within Highland we will be continuing to follow the rules and mitigation measures that were in place previously and have come from the Scottish Government – all these things; masks in classrooms, social distancing, ventilation in classrooms, limiting contact with other year groups and classes as much as possible will continue. What the rest of the country will be expected to do.
“Better ventilation is being encouraged in schools – but we must consider the time of year and the fact that some of the schools within the Highland Council are pretty antiquated and not in the greatest condition.
“I am keen that schools should make decisions that suit their own circumstances – because each school is different.”
Article by Adam Gordon, image by Willie Urquhart.