Protect children’s mental health, reopen schools — experts

Content warning: This article mentions domestic violence.

The safe return to face-to-face classes can relieve children’s psychological strain after over a year of remote learning, mental health experts say.

In a Sept. 28 forum headed by the UP Resilience Institute, developmental psychologist Melanie Alejandro said that the online learning set-up “blurs” the line between school and home life necessary for children’s healthy development.

It’s very difficult. You have internet issues to deal with. You cannot see your classmates so hindi maganda yung interaction,” Alejandro said.

Though the Department of Education (DepEd) plans to test limited face-to-face classes in low-risk areas for COVID-19, the Philippines is among the last countries yet to fully reopen its schools.

President Duterte rejected DepEd’s proposals for in-person learning in light of the Alpha variant in December 2020 and the Delta variant last June, even as malls and businesses were given the green light to operate.

Juan Carlos Carrasco of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center said that the absence of a traditional in-person learning routine is “removing [the] mental stability of students” and making communication more difficult for teachers.

Vulnerable sector

Researcher Charisse Castaño from Gabriela party list said that limited mobility deprives children of opportunities to interact with their age group, which is vital to their social development.

“Bago nagka-pandemic, [children] were allowed to go out, go to the playground [and] play with kids. Pero ngayon, yung situation nila [is] very, very far from normal,” she added.

Castaño said children turned to coping mechanisms such as pet-keeping and gardening to gain a “sense of achievement” amid a difficult time.

On top of mobility restrictions, Carrasco believes that distance learning adds an emotional strain to parents, who personally teach their children on top of surviving nationwide job loss and hunger, which spiked in April and September 2020 respectively.

“The loss of livelihood brings a lot of frustration to parents that lead to other mental issues such as violence against children,” Carrasco added.

In 2015, the UN Children’s Fund found that three in every five Filipino children experienced some form of physical abuse, with 60.4% happening in households. More children experienced domestic violence in 2020, said humanitarian group Save the Children.

READ: ‘I feel unsafe:’ For domestic abuse survivors, home isn’t a safe place in the pandemic


As schools nationwide enter a second year of remote learning, Carrasco grew concerned about prolonged isolation that may further damage the youth’s mental health.

“We might see a peak of depression [in the next few years with] children that have suffered more than we expected from the situation of confinement,” Carrasco said.

A study found that strict and lengthy indoor confinement over the past year worsened the Filipino adolescents’ mental health.

“Because of the anxiety to return to normal, it’s very important to have early intervention to address those mental needs,” Carrasco said.

Some of these interventions include school-based psychosocial support, interpersonal therapy and stress management training among others.

Castaño encouraged “open conversations” with children for them to “ask questions and express [their] emotion.” He also underscored the role of the government to “provide support to the people in need” and “make help accessible to parents.”

As the country’s mental health services show “substantial gaps and inconsistencies,” Carrasco  forecasts an epidemic of mental health problems post-COVID.

READ: Mental health services ‘not enough’, suicide count highest in 14 years

Still, he hopes for the safe reopening of schools so educators can step in to supplement psychosocial support for students and “close the gap” created by the pandemic.

“Acknowledge [children’s] feelings and assure them that it’s natural to feel scared about [the pandemic],” Castaño added. “Hindi natin kailangang harangan ang mga kabataan sa tunay na estado ng ating lipunan.”