Navigating the mental health toll of COVID-19

A Teach for Nepal fellow reflects on how, following a mental health orientation conducted with UNICEF support, she has learned to better understand and navigate her own mental well-being as well as provide necessary support to the children she teaches

29 December 2020

In early 2020, recently recruited into the latest cohort of Teach for Nepal (TFN) fellows, Rashmi Thapa had been looking forward to heading off to Sindhupalchowk District and starting to teach at her assigned school. But the threat of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown meant that Rashmi and the other fellows could not begin their placements as planned.

“At first, the coronavirus was something only other countries had to be concerned about, and then it got closer, too close for comfort and too close to home,” she says. “It was a confusing time… we didn’t know when it would be over.”

What’s more, Rashmi had been at the TFN learning institute in the capital Kathmandu when the lockdown was announced, and was effectively stuck there for three months, unable to return to her home and family in Morang District to the east of the country.

“My mental and emotional health was not sound, and I was not able to work and function properly,” she says of those first few months. “I wanted to vanish at that time.”

While her initial reaction had been to isolate herself and bottle up her feelings, Rashmi has since been working on analyzing the range of emotions she has gone through as the pandemic wore on. One key catalyst in this effort to better understand herself and mental health in general was an online session that Rashmi and other TFN fellows recently took part in.

Rashmi Thapa
Rashmi Thapa

The COVID-19 related child and adolescent mental health (CAMH) session, organized with UNICEF support, was designed to connect the TFN fellows to child and adolescent mental health experts from the Kanti Children's Hospital, to discuss and learn about common mental health problems and conditions, particularly in the context of COVID-19.

Through the session, the experts helped to clarify participants’ queries and concerns, and provide them with practical coping techniques related to relaxation, stress management and mindfulness. Thus equipped, the fellows were then expected to communicate the learnings and techniques to their students in their placement areas, thereby helping to better support children in navigating mental health issues.

The session for TFN fellows was among 2,000 similar mental health sessions that UNICEF has helped to conduct across the year 2020 for a variety of groups, including teachers, school nurses, frontline health workers and caregivers of children. These have succeeded in reaching around 40,000 children in different parts of the country.

Rashmi Thapa
Rashmi Thapa
Teach for Nepal fellow Rashmi Thapa holding up a student-made drawing as part of the coronavirus awareness programme she initiated for students at her placement school in Sindhupalchowk District.

Following the session, Rashmi found herself making more of a conscious effort to take care of her own mental well-being – through journaling her experiences as well as opening up more with her friends. And she was also preparing to apply and share her learnings with the children she works with, including by modifying the environment, communicating with children with affection and care, and making use of positive disciplining techniques.

So when her placement finally began, Rashmi – in collaboration with another TFN fellow and a local teacher – initiated a COVID-19 awareness programme in the school, encouraging students to create charts and engage in role play that would help them to better navigate their emotions during the pandemic.

“I was also using what we learned as part of the ‘first-level response process’ during the session, where we do not judge, scold or threaten students who are having a difficult time, but try to dig deeper into their problems and situations,” she says.

Although the school is now temporarily shut owing to an increase in infection risk in the area, Rashmi is busy making plans to strengthen support and create a “circle of trust” for the students when the school reopens.

For Rashmi, the mental health session has driven home the reality of mental illness, and the crucial role she can play in supporting her students when they come back to school, burdened with all the confusion and anxiety that the pandemic has wrought.

“I’ve learned from the session that all statistics aside, mental illness is real, it is painful and confusing and very lonely,” she says. “So, while we may not be able to take away someone’s anxiety or depression, what we can do as human beings is support those who may be struggling.”

Rashmi Thapa
Rashmi Thapa
Teach for Nepal fellow Rashmi Thapa (far right) with students at her placement school in Sindhupalchowk District.