Is children's mental health the next national disaster? - opinion

The social and emotional well-being of our children is in great danger, and as a country, we need to do something about it.

Depressed person broods in tunnel (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Depressed person broods in tunnel
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
 More than once in Israel’s history have we had to use the sad refrain of “Bring back the boys.” Due to our regional circumstances, many young men both alive and dead have been held captive by foreign forces, and many Israeli governments have had to make tough and questionable deals in order to bring them home again. Yet over the last year and very much in the public eye, we have been slowly losing a whole generation of even younger boys and girls.
Children from kindergarten through year 12 have been lost at home, without friends for personal interaction and social integration, without teachers to personally guide them during the maturation process, and often without parents who were “critical workers” and had to leave them at home to fend for themselves. For months now, calls have been made to send the children back to school, yet the problem runs so much deeper than that. The social and emotional well-being of our children is in great danger, and as a country, we need to do something about it.
Purim marks a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since last March, education has been very much at the forefront of the national discourse, but not in the way in which it needs to be. Lockdown #1 was all about Zooming in. Teachers were quickly up-skilled and many were excited by the challenges of catapulting education into the 21st century. Yet very soon, the challenges regarding computer cameras and class participation were beginning to raise their head. Despite this, the Education Ministry forged ahead and scrambled for ways in which to facilitate the bagrut (matriculation) examinations, the achievement of which was considered a success.
Without a regular summer of social interaction – which can often include camps, overseas trips or endless beach days with a multitude of friends and family – lockdown #2 began three weeks into the school year. Children knew what was coming and they weren’t happy. Children know when they are struggling and they know when they simply cannot cope. They knew that the second lockdown would see a downward spiral. Class attendance rapidly dropped and students began to implore teachers and principals to find a way to bring them into school. It wasn’t just a cry for help, but rather a mass of screaming voices.
The mounting problems of this COVID-19 generation have been well-documented. However, it is not limited to increase in depression, drug and alcohol use, and obesity. Children in years one, two and three have missed out on the beginning years of school, of learning how to share, discuss, play and interact with others. It goes without saying that they should have been learning to read and write and complete basic mathematical problems. 
CHILDREN IN year six have missed out on the last year of primary school. They haven’t been readied for the move to junior high; haven’t been prepared to once again become the youngest, and in most cases, the smallest students in the school; haven’t been emotionally equipped to say goodbye to some of their best friends and teachers on whom they have relied during their formative years. In some cases, they will enter a school or a class where they don’t have any acquaintances. For an 11-year-old, all of this can be traumatic at the best of times. It has not been possible to emotionally prepare them in a satisfactory manner.
Children in year seven don’t have any idea about junior high; some have been there for less than a month. They don’t know about their new school culture, hardly know their teachers or their classmates, and in September they will no longer be able to receive the attention deserving of year-seven students. Year-nine students haven’t had a proper year to prepare for the start of the matriculation exams in year 10. The exams require organization and time-management skills, self-awareness, and an ability to withstand the pressures of school. And of course years 11-12, the last years of high school, help prepare students before the world needs to be navigated. 
Preparation is needed for the army, for a gap year of mechina academic introduction or a year of national service. Some of the choices that need to be made can be life-changing, and yet the circumstances of the last year make it hard to envision with any degree of certainty that these children are ready for the challenges ahead.
None of these social and emotional skills can be learned by opening a book, watching a video clip or attending one or two catch-up classes during the summer. They are acquired through prolonged physical interaction, face-to-face conversations and being part of a maturing peer group and guided by educators.
Over the last few days, there has been a rising voice among parents and children, in particular those of years seven-10. “Don’t forget us,” they say. They don’t want to be left at home like apples rotting at the bottom of a barrel. That is the feeling many of them have as a result of the lack of attention afforded them. Small demonstrations have been organized and some schools have taken to teaching within the malls. It is hoped that a few days before Passover, all students will be back at school in some form or other. But this is a million miles away from being enough.
After a year of COVID-19, a world and a national disaster, there are many important issues that need to be taken care of. Our citizens’ physical health needs to be prioritized and the economy must be resuscitated. And our children need to be prioritized and resuscitated. Our children are in desperate need of our help. They are struggling as they prepare to be returned to some semblance of normality. 
With an election a month away, there must be an immediate national conversation with regard to the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19 on the mental health and social well-being of our children. Make no mistake, the consequences of the last 12 months will be felt for years to come. Dismissing these concerns could become the biggest national disaster of all.
The writer is principal at Ankori High School in Tel Aviv.