Experts counsel empathy, not blame and stigma, for Winnipeg student with COVID-19

By | September 11, 2020

Some Winnipeg psychologists say caution and new ethical guidelines are needed before private health information is made public about students under 18 diagnosed with COVID-19.

On Wednesday the province and media reported the age, grade, school, classroom and bus route of a student who tested positive at Churchill High School.

While the student’s name wasn’t made public, enough information was given out to identify the teen.

“It’s important to realize just because you aren’t publishing a person’s name, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are protecting that person’s confidentiality” said Dr. Syras Derksen, a Winnipeg clinical psychologist.

If a child is identified as someone who has caused a community problem, they could face a backlash in person or on the internet, becoming part of that child’s story for the rest of their life, said Derksen. The impact could be devastating.

He calls it “health discrimination,” whereby someone is discriminated against because of their health during the pandemic. 

“When you are dealing with ethical dilemmas, where you have negative outcomes on both sides, depending on what decision you make, you always protect the person who is most vulnerable. Children fall into that category because they are forming their identity and they are more affected by bullying and negative feedback from others,” said Derksen.

Dr. Jay Greenfeld, a clinical psychologist who counselled school-age children during the lockdown, echoes the same point of view.

Dr. Jay Greenfeld is concerned about the mental health of students whose private health information is made public. (Courtesy Jay Greenfield)

“Any time you are sharing personal health information there are cautious lines, especially for someone under 18 who is developing and vulnerable,” said Greenfeld.

He says it is hard for an adult to cope with being front and centre. It is much harder for students when they are just learning to navigate through the world as teenager. For a child to be put in the spotlight, to be headline news, when they were already anxious about returning to school, makes them extremely vulnerable to their own level of anxiety.

Anytime someone is singled out, Greenfeld says, they are at a high risk for being ostracized, bullied, embarrassed and shamed. 

“The student is left to figure it out on their own. No child should be put in this sort of position. It’s not appropriate if a child is singled out. But the province has certain rules. Unfortunately that limits what we are able to do or not do, we have to follow the rules,” said Greenfeld.

Delmar Epp is an associate professor of psychology at Canadian Mennonite University. Some of the courses he teaches include child development. He worries about the stigma school-age children who test positive could face.

“Some concern at the very least from his or her classmates … people are prone to assign these sorts of stigmas in cases when they themselves are anxious and feel the person has become a source of threat. And when they are afraid, there is a strong-felt need to find a culprit,” said Epp.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin urges the public to avoid stigmatizing people in the school system who test positive. He was asked by CBC about the mental health effects on the Churchill High School case given the intense scrutiny.

“That’s the downside of releasing specific information. The more we scrutinize this situation or try to identify the individual, the less likely the next person who might have mild symptoms will go for testing. So please do not try to stigmatize the individual in a pandemic,” said Roussin. 

‘Time of ambiguity’

“I think we are going to have new ethical guidelines coming out, but we need to be careful when we are in this time of ambiguity because people could get really hurt in this learning process. And I think we really need to think about that with children and weighing that carefully,” said Derksen.

Greenfeld is hoping the school system will seize this moment as teachable one, especially in light of the fact there will likely be more cases in schools in the weeks to come, driving home the message to students about the seriousness of the virus and how to keep themselves and those around them safe.

“The key here is to developing empathy. Imagine if you were them, wearing their shoes. It doesn’t become real unless it is you,” said Greenfeld.

Epp hopes to take the discussion into his classroom this fall.

“There is a balance between the public’s right to know where a problem exists, and the privacy of the individual in terms of their health. Where to find that ethical balance is going to be an ongoing conversation,” said Epp. 

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