Sarah Bakhtiari, Co-Principal and Director of Welfare at Bellerbys College Brighton
Times of crisis make explicit the incredible effort that teachers and staff exert to ensure that their students are happy and healthy. Although the nation’s schools have closed indefinitely, many international students have been unable to return home due to travel restrictions. We have 135 international students aged between fourteen and eighteen with us currently – and our duty of care for them cannot falter. Here is how we are doing our best to maintain a sense of community and make sure that everyone’s wellbeing is taken care of.
Creating a closed community
Early on in the crisis, we made the critical decision to close off our campus to the outside world physically. This means that the school is similar to a family which lives together so that members can interact without the need for the government’s social distancing guidelines. Students can safely continue normal interactions, meaning that they can spend time with their friends and classmates, providing them with some degree of familiarity in a chaotic time.
We also work to maintain links to students’ families. Translation services are available over both the telephone and email for parents who do not speak English so that we can keep them as up to date as possible with the steps we are taking. We’re encouraging students to stay in regular contact with their families as it alleviates anxiety for both the parents and the students and contributes to a feeling of normalcy. Students have also begun exchanging letters with isolated and elderly people in the local community, as regular volunteering opportunities are out of the question. Acts of kindness like this can help students who are feeling helpless or concerned about the wellbeing of their own older relatives.
Active bodies, active minds
During school, classes and activities like sports provide students with a sense of meaning and achievement. This personal development and confidence-building cannot merely cease as schools close, and we are taking steps to ensure that students remain active both mentally and physically – which has a proven link to positive mental health. We have adopted circuit training, stretching, and boxing classes as exercises which involve limited physical contact, and we are organising international nights, bingo, art classes and quizzes among a range of other activities. We find that it is crucial to provide students with a varied timetable to occupy their attention and help them avoid dwelling on anxious thoughts, especially during holidays and breaks.
Culture and mental health
International students bring with them an understanding of mental health from their home country, and while Britain has made gradual progress toward destigmatising the topic, this is not true everywhere. In India, for instance, a recent survey of more than 3,500 people found that three out of five believed that mentally ill people should be segregated to avoid infecting healthy people. As such, many international students are disinclined to come forward if they experience mental health issues.
At Bellerbys, we train every member of staff – from cleaning and catering to residential staff and teachers – to recognise early warning signs for mental health issues. We take our responsibility to care for students’ mental health as equally important as our duty to protect them physically, and we ensure that they have access to resources such as counselling wherever necessary.
Teachers and staff have come together to support students at this uncertain time, and we are all working to support our local community. Bellerbys has donated PPE to the NHS, and we continue to give leftover hot meals to a local homeless shelter twice a day. At an unprecedented, uncertain, and anxiety-provoking time, we have redoubled our efforts to support our students and ensure that they remain healthy and occupied and understand that there is no stigma attached to reaching out for help.