Mental health a timely focus topic for European School Sport Day 2020

By Rachel Payne, ISCA

“I can’t think of anything more timely to be the focus topic of ESSD 2020,” Youth Sport Trust International’s Managing Director Helen Vost said about the choice to put mental health at the forefront of the European School Sport Day’s (ESSD) 2020 campaign at ISCA and the Hungarian School Sport Federation’s (HSSF) latest webinar for ESSD National Coordinators.

The decision to make mental health the focus topic of ESSD 2020 had already been prompted by growing evidence of mental health struggles among school children well before 2020 unfolded. As schools re-start across the world after Covid-19 lockdowns, health professionals and schools are drawing even more attention to the potential impact of isolation, uncertainty and loss on children’s mental health. So how can physical activity help children’s transition back to school and their social interaction at school?

We opened the discussion together with Helen Vost, Youth Sport Trust Head of Research Amanda Vernalls and Hungarian child psychologist Csilla Kaposvari in the third of our series of online professional development seminars for ESSD coordinators. More than 1000 schools are now registered for this year’s European School Sport Day and there are less than three weeks to go until the 6th edition kicks off around Europe on 25 September.

“Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave, and mental health really matters in childhood,” Csilla said in the webinar, pointing to the statistic in the Mental Health Toolkit she developed with ISCA for ESSD 2020 that half of mental health problems develop before the age of 14. Even before the onset of the pandemic, depression and anxiety disorders are among the top 5 causes of overall disease burden among children and adolescents, she noted.

Signs of deteriorating mental health among children are being revealed in research coming out of the UK, with Sport England and Youth Sport Trust gathering children’s, teachers’ and partners’ thoughts in surveys conducted throughout lockdown.

Amanda presented the alarming statistics that 41% of children say they feel lonelier, 38% more worried, 37% sadder and 34% more stressed since the pandemic began.

“(Now) four in five children are worried about returning to school and one in four parents were not sure about sending their children back to school in September (when asked in July),” she said, adding that 52% are worried that they won’t be able to interact with their friends the same way as they could before.

School closures and the subsequent loss of support services and facilities for sport and play have also mirrored a significant drop in physical activity levels among children in the UK, with only 14% of children meeting the recommendation of 60 minutes of daily physical activity at the height of lockdown (a drop from 47% before the pandemic).

Despite activity levels dropping, there is a growing consciousness among children and families – emphasised by governments allowing people to go outside each day to exercise – that keeping active can boost our physical and mental health at times of stress. This is also prompting school staff to think differently about physical education, with 57% of school leaders saying that the focus of their physical education lessons will change as a result of Covid-19 and focus on wellbeing. Some schools will even appoint staff and students as Wellbeing Champions or Mental Health Champions when they reopen.

How to take action: Resources for schools and ESSD 2020 coordinators

The ESSD 2020 Mental Health Toolkit for European School Sport Day event coordinators suggests a variety of activities to inspire schools to try wellbeing-focused exercises that children can do outside, at a distance (if needed), with their peers or from home as an alternative to traditional team sports.

Using green surroundings as a setting for physical activity can combine the best of two worlds, Csilla says.

“Doing physical activity in the nature may be even more beneficial than simply being active, because spending 100 minutes per week in natural surroundings is already associated with good mental health and wellbeing.”

To help start the conversation about mental health in school settings, we encourage European School Sport Day event coordinators to browse the Mental Health Toolkit and Amanda, Helen and Csilla’s presentations to help you:

  • Use the latest facts and figures to raise awareness about the need to nurture children’s mental health at school
  • Convince schools that physical activity can help boost children’s mental and physical wellbeing
  • Suggest activity ideas that celebrate physical activity and good mental health on European School Sport Day
  • Involve the children in designing their own activities
  • Keep the conversation going after European School Sport Day

You can access these resources for free here:

European School Sport Day Mental Health Toolkit

What next for the COVID generation? The wellbeing challenge ahead, by Amanda Vernalls

Targeted interventions to support emotional wellbeing, by Helen Vost

European School Sport Day Mental Health presentation, by Csilla Kaposvari