The ongoing Covid crisis is having an impact on mental health. The College Wellbeing Team has introduced several measures to ensure every student has access to the support he needs during these challenging times.

Teenage boys’ lives are in a constant state of flux as they deal with physical, emotional and neurological change. Covid lockdowns have only added to the stress and pressure they are under. Offsite learning, sport cancellations and enforced isolation from school mates have tested resilience and pushed patience levels to the limit.

Joeys has long been aware that sound mental health is the wellspring from which all individual progress and achievement flows. To ensure students’ wellbeing is monitored and supported during the pandemic, the College’s Wellbeing team has set in place a number of initiatives overlaying the regular care that is provided to all students.

As a starting point, all boys are contacted by their boarding and academic coordinators on a regular basis to assess students’ state of mind and motivation. An Offsite Wellbeing Plan outlining tips for sleeping, eating, exercising and relaxing has also been sent to every student. And on Monday and Wednesday, boys have a Zoom meeting in their Mentor groups, providing an opportunity to connect with their Mentor teacher and classmates, share challenges and successes, and learn proactive strategies to improve health and wellbeing.

On top of this, weekly online wellbeing checks enable students to raise issues they may not be comfortable airing in front of their mates. It is a hugely significant initiative because it allows more reserved boys to indicate they are not coping well and seek help from the College psychologists on a one-to-one basis.

Exercising and staying active during lockdown is key to maintaining a healthy body and mind.

So far the most pressing issues have been managing workload and excessive screen time. Mindful of the need to keep students motivated, the College has shortened school days to 2.40pm, and instituted a weekly Consolidation Day. It’s Zoom-free learning time boys can use to catch up on studies, complete set work and recharge their batteries.

“Consolidation Day gives the boys a chance to ‘breathe’ and work independently, developing their self-management skills,” says Dan Fee, the Head of Student Wellbeing at the College. “And finishing at 2.40pm allows everyone an opportunity to get outside and stay active.”

Without the stimulation and enjoyment that comes from person to person contact with mates and teachers, boredom and lack of motivation can set in quickly during lockdown. Not having fun with friends or being able to play sport dampens enthusiasm. Head College Psychologist Clare McMahon says finding ways to stay motivated is what many boys have been having trouble with. “The time we spend outside is reduced in lockdown and boys are not able to see their mates as often. This contributes to the way they are feeling, the way we are all feeling.”

“We need to make sure that talking about how we are travelling mentally is part of our every-day conversation. It’s not weak to speak.”

mrs Clare McMahon, head college psychologist

She believes recognising small achievements is key to making headway in the current circumstances. 

“When students weren’t in lockdown at school, a musical performance or sporting victory were ways they might have registered a sense of achievement. But that isn’t possible now. So I tell them to notice the smaller things they might have achieved in the day during lockdown, whether it is making note of when they completed a difficult question in class or sending a text to one of their mates. Drawing attention to things they have achieved, no matter how small, can build motivation”

She also advises boys on how to connect online so that they can recreate the sense of community and friendly competition they experience on campus. “One boy wants to get into a higher grade rowing team and is following the Joeys rowing schedule that is sent out each week. So I’m talking with him about doing ergs (indoor rowing) with someone else on the app House Party which a few of the boys are using. Training together online can help the boys connect socially.”

The links between physical and mental health are well documented. A healthy body encourages a healthy mind. Urging boys to remain active during lockdown has been a primary objective of the Wellbeing Team’s offsite program. Even a simple walk around the block can help relieve stress and frustration. To that end, they conceived the Walk On Challenge. Inspired by Joeys’ famous battle cry, it is a virtual Marist pilgrimage around the world, where students and teachers log in the kilometres they have walked, ran, cycled or rowed each day to advance the communal journey.

Head College Psychologist, Mrs Clare McMahon, is helping students find motivation.

Included on the route are Marist landmarks such as the Brothers’ birthplace in La Valla, France, and Parkhead, the home of the famous Scottish soccer club Celtic. Already 6300 kilometres have been logged as Walk On makes its way from Bacau in Timor Leste to Balay Pasilungan in the Philippines.

“We know that if you aren’t moving that’s going to have a ripple effect in terms of your wellbeing,” says Mr Fee. “The Walk On cry is such a big part of Joeys identity and on a literal level it allows boys and teachers to find a collective purpose they can all contribute to.”

The one positive emerging from lockdown is the increased family time boys experience. The love and understanding of parents and siblings is important when students have to deal with exam stress or logistical problems such as wifi connectivity. 

They are also one port of call when boys aren’t feeling themselves – when negative thoughts are taking over. Another is the College’s psychologists. Working within a framework of confidentiality and mutual respect, students are encouraged to unburden themselves to the psychologist and investigate solutions to their problems. Mrs McMahon says there are no limits on what boys can discuss with her or her team. The biggest hurdle is getting them to ask for help.

Mr Dan Fee, Head of Student Wellbeing, says regular online checks allow boys to raise issues they may have.

“It’s not weak to speak,” she says. “We need to make sure that talking about how we are travelling mentally is part of our every-day conversation. The best way for a boy to start a conversation is for him to say ‘I don’t feel myself’ – through either family or school support avenues. It is important adults role-model this in healthy ways to the boys, too.”

The encouraging thing, she says, is that more and more boys are engaging with the counselling team or psychologists and becoming comfortable talking about their feelings.

“There’s still a way to go in terms of ideas about masculinity and how that influences boys and their decision to perhaps not seek help, but there are good signs, and the boys know that we are there for them.”

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Mr Fee adds.

Both Mr Fee and Mrs McMahon agree that prioritising students’ mental health is paramount during this period of uncertainty.

“The whole approach to offsite learning is through the lens of student wellbeing,” Mr Fee says. “It’s about ensuring every boy is cared for and has access to support if he needs it.”

At Joeys, no-one walks alone.