MHPSS and SEL
Emergencies—including conflict, disasters, and forced migration—have negative effects on the psychosocial development of individuals, as well as on the short and long-term development of local and global communities. In emergency situations, education is a major factor in the mental and physical protection of children and can be a key psychosocial intervention. If properly delivered, education can offer learners a safe, stable environment amid crisis, and help restore a sense of normality, dignity, and hope by providing both routine and structured, supportive activities that help build children’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills.
Humanitarian crises profoundly impact children, youth, teachers, and caregivers. They threaten every aspect of daily living, including housing, health, sanitation, recreation, and education. Crises can disrupt family structures and relationships, disturb social cohesion, and can create feelings of isolation, uncertainty, fear, anger, loss, hopelessness, and sadness. Long-term exposure to a disaster or conflict without appropriate and timely mitigation can damage physical and mental health. The impacts emergencies have on the functioning of families and communities impact the development of children and young people. Young children may sustain deep emotional scars from witnessing violence, migrating under difficult physical conditions, and living in dangerous and stressful conditions for long periods of time. They also may be separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Moreover, crisis-affected children frequently lack access to adequate health care and early learning opportunities, face food and water shortages, and experience the loss of a parent or other caregiver, physical injuries, and other extreme challenges to survival, which increase their mortality rates. Early childhood interventions that support development from conception to age eight can create a buffer against the difficulties young children face in emergencies. These efforts can be enhanced by the people who are most important in a child’s environment—parents and primary caregivers, teachers, health-care workers, and others.
While some stress in life is normal and even necessary for development—children need to experience some emotional stress to develop healthy coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, and resilience —the type of stress a child experiences when exposed to a conflict or natural disaster can become toxic if there is intense, repeated, and extended activation of the body’s stress response system. Repeated activation of the stress response system, especially early in life, can have a toxic effect on children's developing brain architecture, also known as 'toxic stress’. This is particularly true if there is no supportive adult figure to offer protection (Center on the Developing Child, 2016).
Key Terms and Definitions
Mental Health: Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress and potentially very different social and clinical outcomes. Mental health conditions include mental disorders and psychosocial disabilities as well as other mental states associated with significant distress, impairment in functioning, or risk of self-harm.
Psychosocial: The interaction between social aspects (such as interpersonal relationships, social connections, social norms, social roles, community life and religious life) and psychological aspects (such as emotions, thoughts, behaviors, knowledge and coping strategies) that contribute to overall well-being.
Psychosocial support (PSS): The processes and actions that promote the holistic wellbeing of people in their social world. It includes support provided by family and friends. PSS can also be described as a process of facilitating resilience within individuals, families and communitiy. PSS aims to help individuals recover after a crisis has disrupted their lives and to enhance their ability to return to normality after experiencing adverse events.
Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS): MHPSS is a composite term used across different sectors and aims to help individuals recover after a crisis has disrupted their lives and to enhance their ability to return to normality after experiencing adverse events. MHPSS can be both local or outside support that is:
- Promotive – promotes wellbeing
- Preventative – decreases the risk of mental health problems
- Curative – helps overcome psychosocial/mental health problems. *The term 'curative' should be used with caution as it is suggestive of a medical term. MHPSS is a 'support', not a 'cure'.
Social and emotional learning (SEL): The process of acquiring core competencies to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively. The qualities SEL aims to foster include self-awareness, emotional literacy, cognitive flexibility, improved memory, resilience, persistence, motivation, empathy, social and relationship skills, effective communication, listening skills, self-esteem, self confidence, respect, and self-regulation. SEL is an important component that sits under the psychosocial support (PSS) umbrella. SEL is an important component of PSS that educators can and should address, since it contributes to children’s and youths’ improved psychosocial wellbeing. It is a pedagogical practice and process that is especially fitting in both formal and non-formal educational environments, since it promotes the skills and abilities that help children, young people, and adults learn.
SEL is an important component that sits under the MHPSS umbrella. INEE views SEL as an important component of MHPSS that educators can and should address. It is a practice that can be readily and easily employed in educational settings and one that contributes to children’s and youth’s improved psychosocial wellbeing. It is a pedagogical practice and process that is especially fitting in both formal and non-formal educational environments, since it helps children, young people, and adults alike to acquire and promotes the skills and abilities that help them learn more effectively.
Wellbeing: A condition of holistic health and the process of achieving this condition. It refers to physical, emotional, social, and cognitive health. Wellbeing includes what is good for a person: having a meaningful social role; feeling happy and hopeful; living according to good values, as locally defined; having positive social relations and a supportive environment; coping with challenges through positive life skills; and having security, protection, and access to quality services. Important aspects of wellbeing include: biological, material, social, spiritual, cultural, emotional, and mental.
For more information on Teacher Wellbeing, visit the Teacher Wellbeing Resource Collection.
Why provide MHPSS through education?
- Systematic reviews provide evidence of the significance of schools as a location for MHPSS interventions in humanitarian settings, enabling wider access for children. Schools provide the stability, structure, and routine that children need when coping with loss, fear, stress, and violence, which can improve mental health and resilience and can help recovery for the majority of children and youth affected by conflict or disaster. (UNICEF, 2021)
- Safe schools and non-formal learning spaces are some of the most beneficial environments for children and youth during a period of uncertainty. Intentional investment in education-based PSS has proven to protect them against the negative effects of disasters by creating stable routines, providing opportunities for friendship and play, fostering hope, reducing stress, encouraging self expression, and promoting collaborative behavior (Action for the Rights of Children, 2002, unpublished manuscript; Alexander, Boothby, & Wessells, 2010; Masten, Gewirtz, & Sapienza, 2013).
- Schools, non-formal education programs, and early childhood education services can be equipped to address children, caregivers, and teachers mental health needs by:
- Creating a supportive learning environment that safeguards mental health, where all children and education professionals feel included, supported, and valued
- Ensuring teachers and school administrators are well-equipped to support the well-being of learners and teachers
- Promoting a culture in which mental health and wellbeing is talked about openly, implementing programs and curricula that increase mental health literacy and promote social-emotional learning,
- Providing early identification and early intervention for those needing additional mental health support (ensuring linkages to community-based mental health care)
- Increasing caregivers and community engagement to support children's learning and overall wellbeing.
- MHPSS and SEL approaches work best when integrated into the different spheres of young people’s lives. Since education settings bring children and their peers, parents, families, and communities together, they can help create a supportive environment that promotes wellbeing. Ideally, the education and community settings that surround each child work together to ensure that they receive the best possible care and follow up; this includes communication between teachers and parents, counsellors if needed, etc.
This collection was developed with the support of members of the INEE PSS-SEL Working Group.