“Talking is the best medicine” - An interview with Inge Akker, social worker at BBS secondary school

A picture of Inge Akker, who works as a social worker at BBS secondary school

The world is still in the midst of an on-going global pandemic, and though we can finally already see the light at the end of the tunnel, the last 18 months have taken a strain on all of us. With “World Mental Health Day” approaching on Sunday, 10 October, we caught up with Inge Akker, who works as the social worker at the secondary school in Granitzstraße to talk to her about mental health and well-being. Inge has been working at BBS since 2013. Until approximately one and a half years ago she was working at the primary school in Weinstraße. Originally from the Netherlands, Inge worked with troubled young adults in Amsterdam for six years before deciding to move to Berlin to further her personal and professional development.

Thanks for taking the time to meet with us today, Inge. How were the last 18 months for you – what was your experience?

Inge: It was a blessing in a way, a time to calm down and to get back to the basics or the essence of what is important in life. At times it was difficult of course, but overall I realised just how little I need in order to be happy. I don’t need much. But I do need human connection and contact.

Did you notice a change in the children at the secondary school when they came back after lockdown?

Inge: I want to begin by stressing that I am so incredibly proud of the students for how flexible they have been in coping with all of the things that were demanded of them by the State, the school and their parents/caregivers during the pandemic. The essence of puberty is autonomy; it is in our nature to seek freedom during this time of change, and that was blocked by the pandemic to a certain extent. It was tough for the children, and I noticed that the second lockdown was a lot more difficult for them to deal with, but they showed bravery, courage and flexibility without too many complaints. I am so proud of them!

What kind of social and emotional challenges have you noticed among the children at the secondary school after they came back after lockdown? 

Inge: The difficulties the students faced fluctuated by their ages and levels. So some of the challenges the children are facing post lockdown are concentration problems, an increase in anxiety or depression, and friendship problems. Based on my experiences speaking to other social workers from other schools and to caregivers at parent’s evenings, they are seeing similar developments. The on-going pandemic has been tough on the students, the parents/caregivers and everyone. I think we are all trying to find ourselves again. It’s such a new situation so I’ve been helping the students to figure out how we can understand it. Let’s experiment. I think there is a lot of power inside of us and we can redefine ourselves. I think it’s also important to remember that there is a palette of diversity and no two students or people experienced the pandemic in the same way. And that’s ok! Some children might have experienced more challenges that others. Some were dying to get back to school whereas others were enjoying the freedom of an unstructured day. This shows us that there is no one way of being human or one way of being. Everyone responds to situations differently and that is perfectly normal. We can and should acknowledge these differences and lend an open ear. Life is not always perfect, but the pandemic has shown us that we can grow and develop, learn and function in spite of hardships.

How do you support the children who are struggling?

Inge: I truly believe that we benefit from being such a tight-knit community in comparison with a state gymnasium; we look after each other so that hopefully no one will go under the radar and everyone feels seen. I hope that we are all getting the support that we need, while being respectful of privacy, confidentiality and individual wishes. The students at the secondary school can come to me at any time during the school day unless they have exams and there is no stigma at all attached to coming to see me. Talking is the best medicine. The students come to me to get things off their chests and when they want advice. Sometimes, during our conversations, they uncover a dominant problem or open up to reveal a deeper underlying problem and that can be a relief for them. Sometimes caregivers or staff members come to me to ask me to have a look into a certain student or situation in order to catch a problem early. I think the most important way I can help the students is to remind them to be kind to themselves, as that is the starting point for being a good friend and a better student at school. Accepting yourself is the road to success. During the pandemic I jumped on my bike and cycled to the boroughs where the students were living and we went on long walks together. It took me back to working in Amsterdam because I was often out on the streets with the children.

How are the children being supported by BBS?

So we provided the students with a guideline of resources and helpful information for them to use when and if they are facing certain problems. It’s a useful guide for them so that they know where to go and when. Infographic of helping resources and tools for children in different scenarious

For example, where do I go if I have been feeling sad for a long period of time. Besides for BBS facilitating the students being able to come see me at any time during school hours, which is really quite a special thing for a school to do, another thing that was important for the BBS and the leadership team was to show the students our gratitude when they did come back to school after lockdown. We wanted to give the students something that showed them we understood how difficult this pandemic has been and that we cared about what they had gone through. Backed up by a pedagogical approach, we wanted to see how we can make the best of this pandemic. We came up with the idea of helping the children feel like the classroom is theirs, and will give them the freedom and autonomy to decorate it as they wish. So we will give the children a budget for decoration. The students are doing this with their tutors and the leadership team. The secondary school is quite a small building and there are certain limitations to this, for instance not damaging the walls, but other than that, the students are free to decide how to decorate and organise the classrooms however they want. Pre-pandemic, the students used to go from room to room but under the previous and current guidelines this is not happening in no longer possible, or happening in a limited way. So we wanted to do something nice for them to show them our appreciation.

That sounds amazing! I really love the fact that the BBS prioritises the mental, social and emotional well-being of all the students. What are your thoughts on mindfulness and meditation? Can they be helpful for our mental health?

I believe this is very personal. And I like to interpret mindfulness (and maybe even meditation) in a broad way. For everyone to adapt in a way until it “fits” them, without focusing too much on the label itself or a classical way of practicing. But yes, it is indeed also the essence of my work as a counsellor to connect with yourself. But how we get there is very personal. And even more with the youth, I truly believe we shouldn’t push them into just one direction. They are very capable and if we “frame” them too much it would only limit them. Instead I think we should be offering guidance, safety, and if needed a place to fall back on during this journey… I prefer to see it like this.

How can parents and caregivers support their children? Do you have any tips, advice or suggestions for them? 

Inge: I think it’s important to have our children know that their voice is being heard and that their feelings are being taken into consideration; to sit down and listen to them. We can support them by offering guidelines and frameworks and giving them the right to consent (Zustimmungsrecht) and to participate in bigger decisions that affect them without overwhelming them. Everything should be balanced, of course. We don’t want them to feel lost or overwhelmed, but rather part of the discussion. During the pandemic, so much was decided for them, so what we want to do now is sit down with the students and decide together. To give them the feeling they can participate and let them be part of the decision-making process. For example, as a family, you might say “we spent a lot of time together as a family during the pandemic. How do we want to continue having special quality time together?” Or if you are planning a holiday, include your children. It could be as simple as asking them “Do you think we should fly to our holiday destination or travel by train?” Parents and caregivers can help their children feel in control again and to motivate them to use their voice. We want to look at things at a micro level – where do we stand, where are we now, and then take it from there to help and provide them with support as parents/caregivers, at school, as part of the BBS community and as friends. For those families who had children going through puberty during the pandemic or at the start of lockdown, offer understanding and allow your children to make mistakes to compensate for the fact that during the lockdowns they had no control and no way to experiment in a safe setting. Give your children reassurance, safety and freedom. Give them the possibility to spend time with their friends and have sleepovers. Another thing that caregivers might want to do is to write notes to their children or to write letters to them in a private diary as a way to communicate in a more therapeutic and less threatening way. You could leave a note for your child saying something like, “I am so proud of you” or “I am always here for you if you need to talk.”

All humans struggle, but the challenges we face in life don’t have to define us. Perfection is not the goal. Things are tough at times but we can always find help. Self-care and asking for help is strongly encouraged. I also have to say that we are really lucky to be living in a country where mental health is taken seriously and everyone is able to get a therapist that is then paid for by medical aid. When our teeth hurt, we go to the doctor. When our feet hurt, we see a podiatrist. Sometimes I find it strange that we don’t take as good care of our brains and yet they are arguably the most important part of our bodies. Though, for sure, it is harder and more complicated to take care of our brains and their complex needs. We need to prioritise “wellness for the brain.” I think a lot of Netflix is unhealthy and you have to sift through a lot of junk, but there are several series on Netflix that normalise issues and break through the stigmas around topics that affect our children, like autism, race or sexual discrimination. There are also some good series made for and by the LGBTQIA+ community. Also stars like Billie Eilish can also be good role models for our children. The teenage brain is more focused on peers. When they see peers make a mistake, they might think “how would I act or respond in that situation?” For our secondary students, the adults in their lives are still important in terms of offering safety and guidelines. That is why the pandemic was so damaging to them because they were unable to spend as much time with peer groups as they usually would. We can balance out the negative effects of that by giving them the room to explore, discover and find themselves. And remember that the brain takes around 25 years to develop and mature. So there is time to mitigate the harmful impacts that the pandemic might have had on their developing brains. I am very hopeful for the future. I am fully confident that they and their generation will do well and become stronger from this.

That is so encouraging! Thank you for your encouraging insights into how we might help our children and for your time today. Let’s take good care of ourselves and each other and continue to promote and foster social, emotional and mental health.

Inge's Helpful Hints :

How we can offer help and support to the children in our care:

  • Offer them reassurance
  • Provide them with safety and security
  • Allow them to be part of decision-making 
  • Don’t force them – if they don’t want to talk they don’t have to. Let them know you are there for them i.e. “I see you, I am here for you but I respect your wishes”
  • Respect their boundaries
  • Show them that self-care is important by modelling self-care and by being kind to yourself