You are here:

MH and Education Webinar Notes

Published on




Chair: Sarah Kline, United for Global Mental Health


  • Ann Willhoite; UNICEF
  • Paul St John Frisoli; Lego Foundation
  • Geoffrey Khira Omega;  Basic Needs Basics Rights Kenya, and Global Mental Health Action Network Advisory Board Member

The recording of this webinar can be found here

Speakers’ main call to action: 

  • Ann Willhoite: My overall thought is calling for increased investment and creating multi-sectoral systems of education, doing that can strengthen resilience, reduce developmental and societal risk factors for children, adolescents and caregivers.
  • Paul St John Frisoli: With the COVID-19 pandemic, we must continue supporting holistic skills development for children within education systems, with a specific focus on social and emotional skills.
  • Geoffrey Omega Khira: We must support University students, especially those more marginalised with less access to technology and support. Our motto for this year is aligned with the theme for World Mental Health Day (WMHD) - investing in mental health must begin with you. 

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

How does education and mental health intersect?Why is education so important for improving a young person's mental health?

Ann Willhoite, UNICEF

For school age kids they see their teachers more than they do any other adult (e.g. parents caregivers). This means that school, in addition to teaching traditional subjects, is also important for socialisation, support and encouragement for the majority of a child's waking hours. To support a child's mental health is just as much the responsibility of a school, whether they are prepared for that or not. 

Safe schools and non-informal learning spaces are some of the most important places for youth especially during periods of uncertainty. Intentional investment in education based Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) - through social and emotional learning for example - has proven to protect them from the negative effects of disasters and stressors. Providing opportunities for play, fostering hope, reducing stress and promoting self expression, all help children's resilience. 

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

When you say social and emotional learning - what does this mean? Also everyone is very conscious of the impacts of COVID-19 on schools and children - is there evidence from UNICEF'S work on the impact of COVID-19?

Ann Willhoite, UNICEF

Social and emotional learning is very simply a way to help teachers and students understand the emotional aspects of the curriculum they are already teaching, and how schools can provide an emotionally supportive environment in addition to, and integrated with, traditional learning techniques. Essentially taking into account the emotional learning as well as the traditional learning. 

In terms of COVID-19 these things become even more important. At UNICEF we have been advocating to national governments to ensure teacher workforces are retained even when schools are closed and that distance learning materials focus on mental health and social emotional learning, as well as establishing back to school plans. 

Also on the UNICEF website there are guidelines for caregivers for younger children and teens during the pandemic. It’s incredibly important to highlight the important role caregivers have in supporting children, especially during this time of uncertainty. Making sure caregiver support is included in the educational, back to school and government plans, as this time has been a huge toll on caregivers. 

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH 

Caregiver mental health was also covered in the Devex and Global Mental Health Action Network meeting that took place last week, with a speaker from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation. There is also a whole webinar series coming up on caregivers mental health, particularly focussing on Africa. 

Paul - You were going to talk about play, and why play is such an important tool for education and mental health?

Paul St John Frisoli, Lego Foundation

Firstly in emergencies we know that education can be life saving, providing psycho-social and physical safety. At the Lego Foundation we promote educational systems that promote children's holistic skills; creative, cognitive and social emotional skills. 

In times of conflict and crisis these social and emotional skills are the pillar for what children need to succeed. We believe that learning through play is a perfect vehicle for holistic skills development, especially social emotional skills development. 

There are five characteristics for learning through play:

  1. Meaningful 
  2. Engaging 
  3. Promote social interactivity
  4. Joyful
  5. Iterative 

We have a new report about to be released that looks at the connections between learning through play and children's coping mechanisms. Some of the findings that have come out of this report are that:

  1. Play does help to support and help children cope with stress
  2. In education settings learning through play can help develop essential cognitive social and emotional skills, such as emotion regulation, impulse control, positive social relationships and skills such as developing empathy and cooperation skills. 

We also learnt that teachers play a pivotal role in promoting social and emotional skills using play methodologies. 

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH 

What age is play aimed at? Can we all play or is it specific to children? 


Paul St John Frisoli, Lego Foundation

Play is aimed at agnostic; usually we talk about it for early childhood development but we have also developed guidance around what play can look like for different age groups, and how it can adapt for different age groups.


Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

Previously we were talking about the link between social and emotional learning and education. For this World Mental Health Day, UNICEF was calling for a revolution in child mental health in light of COVID-19. There is a lot more discussion about children's mental health. What did UNICEF mean by a revolution?

Ann Willhoite, UNICEF

The relationship between education and MHPSS at UNICEF is a bidirectional one; educational settings are ideal for supporting children's mental health and wellbeing but also, including an MHPSS approach in education improves educational outcomes. It is good for both MHPSS outcomes and education outcomes for the two to be combined. 

A child that has their emotional and psychological needs cared for is a child that is better able to learn. The vision of UNICEF’s education strategy is that every child learns. 

Most recently one of the things we are doing to make that a reality is that for WMHD we put out an advocacy briefing, and a whole host of social media messaging as well as a blog. It's really important to have a more specific and intentional approach to mental health that needs to be integrated across all sectors; working together is essential. To aid that, we are putting together a minimum service package for MHPSS specific to emergencies but relevant to all. It breaks down the MHPSS actions necessary for each sector e.g. health, social security, education. This will be published at the end of next year by UNICEF, UNHCR and WHO, and we will be testing the uptake in five countries.

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

Thanks, the Minimum Essential Services Package was just one of the outcomes from the international Mind the Mind conference last year organised by the Dutch government. It will be incredibly important to be able to guide what should be happening in emergencies.

Geoffrey - so far we have mostly been discussing younger children, but you are focussing more on tertiary education? 

Geoffrey Omega Khira, Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya

One of our projects that involves the tertiary sector of education is the provision of mental health services at universities. In Kenya we have had a surge of depression, suicide, anxiety and substance use among students. In this project we are running with public universities, we are trying to increase the access to psycho-social services. We are training the university staff to be able to detect cases at an early stage and offer mental health first aid. We are training the students to be mental health ambassadors so they are able to help each other and detect issues at an early stage. We are also training teaching staff, security teams, people who look after the hostels, to make sure they understand how mental health disorders manifest themselves, because we have found lots of misunderstanding. In the past we have found a student portraying serious signs of addiction and instead of them getting the necessary interventions they are expelled from school or punished. We are trying to increase that level of understanding and awareness. 

We also host anti-stigma campaigns and peer support systems. Also, as with most Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) we find many students come from low economic backgrounds, so have more psycho-social issues that can be a factor that puts them at risk of poor mental health.  We empower the youth to use positive coping mechanisms to address these factors and give them career advice. 

We also use art to promote treatment seeking behaviour and increase awareness. Students come together, have art sessions and discuss their depression. More students come out and are willing to speak about what they have been going through. This is how I wish to work with my peers to address these challenges. 

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

In terms of what you've seen recently with COVID-19, has that changed your work? For example, in terms of how you have reached out and connected to students. 

Geoffrey Khira Omega, Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya

Yes, it has, firstly the universities have been closed, making it harder to reach the students because, as most of them are from low economic backgrounds, not everyone has the gadgets they can use to access online platforms. As much as we are trying to embrace technology it is not really inclusive. We try to devise mechanisms that enable us to reach out to the students, such as the Forum Theatre, where students act out and role play how they are feeling. We have moved this to zoom so that students can connect and interact with their peers online. 

We have provided students with airtime, because often they have a phone but no internet bundles. Secondly we have established virtual peer support systems, giving students airtime to access counsellors through virtual platforms, and have also set up a tele counselling platform

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH 

Thank you Geoffrey, yes we have spoken a lot on these webinars about the need to address basic needs before we are able to begin to help someone's mental health. Ann, are you able to speak a bit more about out of school populations?

Ann Willhoite, UNICEF

While we are talking about education systems we cannot ignore the most vulnerable children who are often not in those systems. Something we haven't really touched upon yet is brain science, but it is really relevant to this setting because the consequence of violent experiences as a child can significantly impact a child's emotional and physical health, and hamper the development of a child's brain. So when the nervous system is over stressed to a very high level it disrupts the development of the brain and can have very long term effects on behaviour and health. This makes it much more important for us to be paying attention to children who may have experience in the education system but are also likely out of the learning environment now.

I’m also really glad Geoffrey touched upon systemic inequalities because if we are talking about mental health we cannot ignore the systemic inequalities that are very true for our children. Geoffrey touched upon lack of technology being a factor, but also the basic levels of food, and healthcare, and shelter and love all have a huge impact on young children.

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH 

As you said lack of basic needs and violence both can have a whole generational impact. There is a campaign called Save Our Future which is a UNICEF, UNESCO, BRAC, World Bank campaign calling for action to address the needs of the future generation of children.

Also the impact of the brain and brain science - there were some really interesting images of what you were just talking about last week in the Global Mental Health Action network Devex webinar.

Paul, you were going to talk a little more about the new online course the LEGO foundation has developed? 

Paul St John Frisoli, Lego Foundation

A few years ago the foundation began a programme focussed specifically on refugee and displaced children to provide learning opportunities, as we know this is really important for their brain development and social emotional development. We are fully committed to learning more and developing more materials for MHPSS, and have some resources on our website, for example a playlist of activities that teachers and caregivers can use to aid social and emotional development, and there is more coming soon. We also have all our play matters at home materials. 

Due to COVID-19 the Lego Foundation board approved some emergency grants to support children psycho-socially and emotionally. One of the things we did was collaborate with a range of experts to design a free online course that kicks off next Monday (October 19th). The premise of this course is there are children around the world adjusting to different lifestyles right now, and many uncertain transitions. Learning through play can play a huge role in supporting those transitions. This course focuses on holistic skills for children with the promotion of psychosocial wellbeing. 

The course is for adults who are interacting regularly with children; teachers, caregivers, aunts, uncles and social workers. We worked with the MHPSS collaborative on the psycho-social modules, and also Caring for the Caregiver. 

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

So that course is available for everyone here and please do share it with others who you think would find it useful. See

We now have a question from the audience which was around the theme of World Mental Health Day this year (access to, and investment in, mental health). 

Geoffrey, are you seeing more investment in mental health in Kenya?

Geoffrey Omega Khira, Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya

We are on the right path, because COVID-19 has exposed to the government the level of neglect to mental health. In terms of investment, there are plans. The government has brought together a mental health task force, and committees have been established. 

In our program we are developing an evidence based policy brief on the interventions we use, we are establishing safe spaces, capacity building and awareness raising. 

It is not right to assume that just because students are attending university, they can overcome every challenge that hits them.

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

That's great, and the Government of Kenya put out some quite strong statements on World Mental Health Day (on social media), and quite a few members of the Global Mental Health Action Network are involved with work in Kenya. 

Ann - what is UNICEF calling for?

Ann Willhoite, UNICEF

UNICEF’s message is for “increased investment in schools and communities to ensure all children learn in a safe and secure environment, soothing, supportive connections to teachers, and that MHPSS services are available for every child who needs it.”

Internally UNICEF has also been really ramping up its investments in MHPSS, and we are hiring a specific MHPSS and education position.  

We are also really involved in the Global Mental Health Action Network. I serve on the advisory board and am also co-chair for the Youth and Child working group. Everyone is welcome to join [via this link]. In this group we are developing best practise guidelines for involving children and young people in designing, creating and establishing programmes.

Sarah Kline, UnitedGMH

There is a huge pressure for young people to be asked of their experience or their learning, particularly for young people with lived experience and I know personally how draining that can be to talk of one's own lived experience and to share that. It's really important to support people through that and help them take part in consultations without overwhelming them.

What is your final message to participants and to policy makers?

  • Ann Willhoite: My overall thought is calling for increased investment and creating multi-sectoral systems of education, doing that can strengthen resilience, reduce developmental and societal risk factors for children, adolescents and caregivers.
  • Paul St John Frisoli: With the COVID-19 pandemic, we must continue supporting holistic skills development for children within education systems, with a specific focus on social and emotional skills.
  • Geoffrey Omega Khira: We must support University students, especially those more marginalised with less access to technology and support. Our motto for this year is aligned with the theme for World Mental Health Day (WMHD) - investing in mental health must begin with you. 


Thank you to all our speakers. In two weeks time the session will be on media and mental health, sign up here