Pilot Programme for strengthening/enhancing the mental resilience of learners and young people in vulnerable groups – refugees in Greece
The Society of Social Psychiatry and Mental Health (SSP&MH) has been certified as a Social Care Institution by the General Public Health and Social Welfare Directorate of the Attica Region. It has implemented an integration and awareness-raising programme, sponsored by the Attica Region, entitled ‘Pilot Empowerment Programme: strengthening the mental resilience of learners and young people in vulnerable groups, 2018–19’.
The programme is being implemented in at least 15 schools in the Attica Region. It is aimed at learners and young people, parents, and teachers: the three main pillars of a school community.
The programme focuses on strengthening the mental resilience of learners and young people, in order to prevent illness and promote their mental health. It also focuses on the protection of children and young people by engaging vulnerable groups in initial early intervention and referring them to competent mental health services.
Particular emphasis is placed on learners and young people in high-risk groups, such as those with special needs, refugees, unemployed people, people with psycho-social issues or disabilities, etc.
The programme’s ultimate aim and philosophy is to implement integrated interventions and extend them on a larger scale. This would holistically address their needs and involve the learner population, their parents and school unit teachers in a reverse dynamic chain of promoting equality, psycho-emotional support, solidarity, reciprocity and the smooth integration of vulnerable people.
The programme is based on non-formal education and experiential workshops. The main methodological techniques are team-building activities, self-exploration and discussions. The workshops are co-ordinated by two professionals and last for 90 minutes each.
The content of the Pilot Programme
The interventions use the principles, methodology and techniques of non-directive intervention therapy (Non-Directivité Intervenante, NDI), art therapy and systemic therapy. These are organised into a set of informal training seminars, structured around the basic principle of non-directive transformative influence, which can be practised in a learning environment and be addressed to teenagers and their parents and teachers. Using a range of projective, physical and other techniques to exploit artistic, creative and theatrical expression and coming from different faculties, cultures and traditions, the participants explore the dynamics of expression, communication and interaction. By working together with active listening, a positive attitude and complete and unreserved acceptance, love, respect and trust towards the evolving individual, an emotional relationship of parity, co-operation and alliance builds step-by-step with the young people. The seminars allow the sharing, emboldening, promotion and embracing of the holistic, and enable participants to fully express their feelings, needs and desires. By ‘accompanying’ them on this very personal path of self-unfolding, the seminars contribute to their personal development.
In addition, the pilot project uses the innovative material created under the Erasmus+ youth project ‘Deliberate Self Harm (DSH) Positive Choices’, which ran from April 2015 to March 2017.
- Prevention, early intervention and promotion of child protection, with emphasis on learners from vulnerable groups.
- Providing informal training seminars to teachers to promote mental health and promote the protection of children and young people.
- Information, psycho-education and support for parents from vulnerable groups, so that they can play their parental role and also increase their own psychological resilience.
- Counselling for teachers so that they can support their learners.
- Strengthening co-operation between the three target groups of learners, parents and teachers, supported by professionals where appropriate.
- Strengthening protective factors for all groups.
- Implementing networking and co-operation activities with actors engaged in this field, such as parents’ associations and non-government organisations.
Due to the difficult economic situation experienced by Greek society, it is absolutely necessary to ensure effective and high-quality child protection services for children and young people who experience problems of abandonment, domestic violence and abuse, or who are generally unable to receive care from their families due to poverty, delinquency or psycho-social problems.
Many learners are socially excluded, which can, among other problems, lead to early school leaving. Research has shown that this vulnerable group of learners is more at risk of developing self-defeating and anti-social behaviour. Studies have also shown that self-destructive behaviour is linked to personality disorders and alexithymia, a characteristic of which is the inability to be aware of and express feelings or to acknowledge the feelings of others or understand what causes them.
Recent SSP&MH mental health awareness and prevention programmes in schools in Attica have focused on these issues. They confirmed the direction that prevention programmes in Greek schools need to take.
The work of the awareness and prevention programmes and addressing the general population identified the need to approach vulnerable learners in their ‘natural’ school environment. This environment has complex needs, in which refugees, among other vulnerable groups, suffer multiple social, psychological and interpersonal pressures.
Refugees face difficulties in participating in social and economic life, either because of social and economic problems or physical or mental disabilities, or because of unforeseen events that affect the proper functioning of the local or wider regional economy.
The number of school classes, varied curriculum requirements, the complex needs of the learners and the difficulty for teachers of diagnosing emotional needs and complex dynamics that develop, particularly in segments that accommodate learners from vulnerable environments, create a problem that is concentrated at class level and is geographically enlarged at the level of schools and the local communities they serve.
Existing interventions are now deemed insufficient to cover demand. There are limitations on the resources required to ensure the implementation of integrated actions and their expansion on a larger scale, to holistically address needs and involve learners, their parents and classroom teachers in a reverse dynamic chain which promotes equality, psycho-emotional support, solidarity, reciprocity and smooth adjustment for vulnerable learners.
SSP&MH accepts more and more requests for the implementation of interventions in schools. These requests focus on violent outbursts, learners’ emotional difficulties, bullying cases, lack of communication between learners and teachers, excessive stress due to exams and pressure from the family. These issues are not expressed, and learners need to express them and share them with their peers.
Intervention is developed in at least 20 school units, and work is geared towards all three key stakeholders: learners, parents and teachers. More specifically, it includes:
1. The implementation of thematic workshops with learners, focusing on the potential of the target group to use the pro-active motivation model
The workshops are implemented according to approval of workshops taking place within school hours, received each year from the Ministry of Education. This ensures learners’ universal participation and teachers’ active involvement. There is also close collaboration with the educational community and the school administration in organising workshops, to ensure that actions fully respond to the learners’ needs.
The content of the classroom interventions generally relates to themes including:
- acquaintance and establishment of relationships with specialists;
- emotional expression – prevention of psychosomatic symptoms;
- intervention to resolve the ‘dynamics’ of the class;
- development of effective communication;
- development of appropriate coping strategies;
- dealing with stress and loss, etc.
Learners can engage energetically and emotionally by formulating their own desires and proposing themes that interest them. Proposed themes are recorded and taken into account in the continuation of the intervention programme, ensuring learners’ continued interest and active participation.
The project phases can be outlined as follows:
a. Preparation Phase: At least one preliminary meeting with the teachers in each school takes place, to clarify and evaluate the request. The head teacher of each school processes and addresses a specific request for intervention in specific classes of the school, in co-operation with teachers and/or parents. The needs of the classes undertaking the intervention are recorded.
Intervention planning takes place based on the results of this preliminary meeting with teachers and parents, taking into account their specific requests for intervention. The request is then processed, and the terms, objectives and content of the intervention are analysed in detail. The school and SSP&MH sign a co-operation agreement, which completes the process.
b. Intervention Phase: Three psycho-pedagogical interventions of two hours’ duration take place with learners in specific classes. Psycho-pedagogical interventions are carried out in experiential workshops, covering the following topics:
- Healthy relationships
- Communication skills
- Recognising and expressing emotions
- Developing positive methods of communication.
A team of two or three mental health professionals co-ordinates the workshops in each class. The experts identify learners with specific needs and suggest an intervention plan or proper referral to community mental health services in the next phase.
c. Integration Phase: At least one intervention assessment meeting is planned, in which school teachers must participate. The process results in the proposal of the necessary follow-up interventions.
2. Implementing psycho-education in parent groups
Parent groups are provided with the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to respond more efficiently and effectively to their parenting role. Interventions with parents last for two hours and take place monthly.
In particular, intervention at this level will include:
- Mapping needs: one meeting with parents and guardians to map their needs.
- Two parent group meetings, lasting for two hours.
Mapping determines the topic of the group meetings. Each meeting has two parts: theoretical and experiential. The teams are co-ordinated by two mental health professionals.
3. Implementing informal training workshops in teachers’ groups
These experiential workshops and seminars aim to support and empower teachers to respond more effectively to the complex needs of the learners that they are responsible for.
Teachers’ group meetings inform teachers about the objectives and the content of the experiential intervention proposed for their pupils. Teachers have the opportunity to discuss their pupils’ mental health needs with specialists. They can also discuss their role in promoting pupils’ mental health in special workshops.
Generally, they have the opportunity to explore in more depth issues that affect the management of daily communication with their pupils. Management of the class dynamics, communication in the classroom, co-operation with parents, internet safety issues, sexuality and other issues are recorded. These issues are then taken into account in preparing the final programme, by organising training programmes, informative seminars, seminars with special themes, etc.
Finally, it is worth noting that an integral part of the methodology of this work in schools is the availability of SSP&MH mental health specialists running young people’s groups in schools throughout the school year. The multi-disciplinary team directly communicates and co-operates with teachers and parents for support whenever necessary.
In particular, the proposed pilot programme includes at least the following actions for each school:
- One counselling meeting with the teachers to map their needs.
- Selection of the topics to be dealt with, based on the mapping of needs.
- Implementation of two informal educational meetings with teachers. Each meeting will include two parts: theoretical and experiential. The teams will be co-ordinated by two mental health professionals.
- Closing and evaluation of the intervention.
- References to relevant community mental health services, if needed.
These actions are organised and implemented through collaborative learning models between parents, teachers, learners and mental health professionals. Interventions with teachers are of two hours’ duration and take place monthly.
The use of interdisciplinary approaches and multi-modal means/techniques is necessary to support both learners with difficulties and their families.
The team responsible for implementing the actions is multi-disciplinary. It consists of psychologists, pedagogues, speech therapists, special therapists (art therapists, drama therapists, etc.) who are trained in experiential interventions and in managing team dynamics.
Duration of the programme
The duration of the pilot intervention programme will be 12 months. In 15 schools over a 12-month period, there will be:
- 675 psycho-pedagogical meetings with learners/per section of on average 25 learners, over two years, to be co-ordinated by three or four therapists;
- 50 two-hour psycho-educational group meetings with parents;
- 50 two-hour informal education meetings for teachers;
- a one-day start-up conference disseminating the programme;
- a one-day conference presenting the results;
- evaluation through special tools;
- promotion activities in electronic and printed media;
- networking actions.
The programme strengthens the inclusion of refugee learners and their families in local society. It contributes to abolishing stigma and prejudice in local societies and to alleviating differences that make it difficult for learners from different cultures to adapt and be integrated into the local community.
In addition, the programme is expected to protect learners from the general population, by giving them the social, emotional and interpersonal skills necessary to respond to the demanding socio-economic environment that has emerged in Greek society, which is plagued by a generalised crisis evolving as a humanitarian crisis as it spreads at the level of morality, values and vision.
The whole school system is expected to become more supportive of people’s difficulties. Learners will develop the attitudes of active citizens with respect to diversity, solidarity, equality and inclusion.
The development of better resilience skills allows all members of the school system (teachers, learners and parents) to create a supportive network around all vulnerable people. Moreover, it provides the basis for a better psychological environment in schools, based on the principles of communication and mutual respect.
Questionnaires are used to evaluate the interventions. They record the attitudes of learners, parents and teachers in specific areas before and after the intervention.
The number of workshops with the three target groups will be an important indicator of the programme’s success and a measurement of its social impact.
The project will be partly sustainable. The organisation has on-going activities and projects for awareness-raising in young people, through community awareness-raising activities. The organisation will include material from this project in its on-going interventions and will mainstream the idea of increasing resilience in the school environment. This project also spreads the message of tolerance for diversity and respect for human rights, including the rights of the most vulnerable, i.e. refugees.
The organisation plans to seek funding to continue the project and to co-operate with its European Union partners to establish the project as best practice for schools.