by Diane Browne

I’ve learned a new word during lockdown: catastrophisation. It’s a lot easier to understand than it is to say. It means, put simply, to turn a negative situation into a catastrophe simply through the power of thought. Apparently, it’s a well-recognised term amongst cognitive behavioural therapists.  I’m not quite sure why it hasn’t registered with me before. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t come across a situation before where I recognised it.

But that’s changed over the last few weeks.

Here comes the understatement of the century: coronavirus is bad. It has had devastating consequences on all our daily lives, our physical and mental health and it has savaged the economy. Hospitals have been overwhelmed, with the most distressing stories emerging of loved ones separated and people reaching the end of their lives alone, cared for by people they don’t know, and even though the level of care that has been provided by NHS has been so outstanding that it has brought many of us to tears, it is still the case that some people have died holding the hand of a stranger. Yes, Coronavirus, I think we can say, has been a catastrophe.

And in the middle of all this has been the prolonged and significant disruption to young people’s lives, with two lengthy periods of school closures where learning had to be moved online, together with an Autumn Term where many normal activities had to be suspended as social distancing rules couldn’t accommodate them.

Plus, of course, for older students, there has been very real stress regarding the examination system, with last year’s dramatic axing of all exams at the eleventh hour, followed by a chaotic initial publication of flawed results before common sense prevailed and more accurate results were awarded, but not before a period of significant anxiety for young minds. Additionally, there remains uncertainty over the exam system for this year and indeed next summer when adjustments will have to be made in order to create a level playing field students whose examination courses have already suffered disruption.

Yes, it’s a bad situation, but we should not refer to it as a catastrophe as recovery is not just possible, but probable.

There has been, rightly, much talk about the impact of Coronavirus on the education and mental health of our young people. However, to catastrophise their situation is to do a serious disservice to the strength of our young people, significantly underestimating their formidable character and capabilities.

Those of us who have had the privilege with working with students for a number of years know already of the admirable qualities they possess. Despite what many adults might believe, young people are positive, well-motivated and resilient, with great can-do determination. Whilst they might not always choose to show this to their parents, they are optimistic, focused and technologically minded, so the transition to online learning has been taken in their stride as education moved to a world that is firmly their territory.

In “Macbeth”, Malcolm says, “Let us sit upon the ground and sing sad songs” and in reply MacDuff says, “stuff that”. I might have just misquoted Shakespeare there, but I agree with the sentiments. Let’s not catastrophise the position young people find themselves in and instead have faith in them and their ability to adapt and succeed.

Will our students need support and understanding, patience and care when they return to school? Of course, they will, particularly for children where access to technology has been difficult and learning has suffered as a result and catch-up plans will have to be robustly supported by Government funding.

However, doom-laden statements which talk of a damaged generation who will take years to recover are really not helpful, especially to the mental health of our young generation who have had to cope with so much already. Let’s instead respect and admire the enormous qualities our young people have and remember that they are highly motivated individuals who have time, and importantly, energy on their side who will recover from this current situation.