Mental health: When times are tough


Much has been said about the mental health crisis facing our nation’s young people, with schools having a key role to play. In the final article of this series, Dr Stephanie Thornton considers how we can best offer help to a troubled teenager


If identifying teenagers with mental health problems can be hard, supporting them in the classroom can be harder.

In an ideal world, there would be a strong network of other professionals alongside you in helping such individuals – but this isn’t always an ideal world. 

Even if a school does provide formal assistance, it is often intermittent. It is still the classroom teacher, the professional on the front-line who is faced with the moment-to-moment challenges of supporting the troubled student. 

So, a mental health problem has been identified. What happens next? Ideally, in serious cases the health services will take over, the individual will be rapidly hospitalised and given expert help. Schools don’t have the resources to manage those with major mental illnesses, and such individuals should not be left to flounder on in our classrooms – though that does happen.

But the majority of troubled teenagers will get very little expert help: just intermittent counselling for a few weeks, often after months on a waiting list – if that. The troubled individual remains at home, and in school. How can we best offer day-to-day support for such pupils in our classrooms?

Safe in school

The first support a troubled teenager needs is to feel safe in school. Whatever the problem, the emotions associated with mental disturbance are strong and scary enough in themselves. The stress of this can be made much worse if the sufferer is rejected by friends, or worse, humiliated or shamed by teasing or bullying about their difficulties. Anything we can do to head off additional stressors of this kind is worth doing. 

A strongly pro-social culture that does not tolerate cruelty, and that fosters accepting and sympathetic responses, is a good target for every classroom. Such a culture can provide a lifeline for  teenagers suffering emotional difficulties. At a minimum, it can stave off the pressures that might otherwise exacerbate their problems.


Offer a sympathetic ear. It is easy for a teenager with mental problems to feel isolated, misunderstood, abandoned, or that they are somehow a failure. A teacher who is clearly accessible to a troubled adolescent, and who listens well, can make an enormous difference. 

What is needed is someone who can be trusted to listen sensitively and sympathetically to whatever may be said, without judging: a listener who can be warm, empathic and genuine. 

We greatly underestimate the healing power of being listened to in that way. Simply sharing a burden can powerfully reduce feelings of isolation and abandonment. Finding non-judgemental acceptance as one shares troubles can be a strong counter to feelings of failure and self-rejection.

Is yours the best ear to offer this sympathy? It may well be, if you have or can establish a relationship of trust with the troubled individual. If not, perhaps there is someone else in the school who would be better? That might even include another pupil. Some adolescents find it hard to connect to adults who don’t share their experiences, but would benefit from sympathetic support from an older individual who has overcome similar problems.

If you can find (and appropriately support) a suitably sensitive and stable mentor, this sort of befriending may work particularly well when fairly specific problems are involved, such as the cutting of self-harm.

Fixing the problems?

Can you help to fix the problems that drive mental problems? Just occasionally, a teenager will reveal some practical issue that is fuelling their descent into emotional distress, and we will have in our power the means to alleviate that problem (abuse or bullying, perhaps, or a struggle with specific school work). 

Generally speaking, alas, we have no magic wand to solve the difficulties that stress the young. This can leave us feeling helpless – but in fact, that is a mistake at two levels. 

Having all your problems fixed for you can be disempowering, which is the very last thing the troubled teenager needs. So long as there is no threat to their safety, it can be far better for the young to find solutions for themselves, whether that involves some pragmatic change or simply learning to react differently to an irresolvable situation. 

But that does not mean that they should be left to their own devices in searching for those solutions: mental health problems are a clear sign that the individual is failing in that effort, and needs help. 

There are various things we can do, to support an individual’s search for solutions.

There are effective techniques for supporting individuals to think-through problems and find solutions (for example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and professional therapists trained in such techniques can make a huge difference. 

Ideally, every troubled teenager should have access to such a mentor, though few do. Most teachers have neither the training nor the time to offer such structured support – the best thing, if that is needed, is to lobby for an expert intervention.

So how can we help, in the classroom? The key lies in fostering attitudes that can help the troubled to cope more robustly.

Encourage hope

Whatever the nature of the problem, the belief that the situation is hopeless is utterly debilitating. Hopelessness and despair undermine efforts to resolve anything (what’s the point in trying, if it’s all hopeless?). 

Replacing this negativity with a more positive outlook is a vital step in coping, and in healing. But fostering hope requires subtlety and sensitivity. 

Breezy assertions that all will be okay can easily make things worse, seeming patronising and dismissive, and reinforcing feelings of inadequacy, abandonment and misery. Hopelessness cannot simply be brushed away. 

Hope has to be rooted in reality as the individual sees it, if it is to have any credibility or any power to heal. So it has to grow out of taking hopelessness seriously – and that suggests a strategy. 

Hopelessness deals in abstract generalisations (such as “I can’t cope”). Such thoughts demoralise and paralyse because they blanket everything, and are too abstract to suggest any remedial course of action. 

Shifting attention to focus on very specific, concrete and above all, achievable goals can make a huge difference in outlook. No matter how small such goals may be, success gives concrete “can-do” feedback to counteract the abstract “can’t” negativity, and so offers a credible foundation for hope.

Supporting the troubled in shifting attention away from demoralising abstractions to engage concrete, specific and immediate goals (and to notice their success) can play a vital part in fostering hope.


The switch from can’t to can-do mentality is intrinsically empowering. It fosters the self-belief that is vital to any individual’s ability to cope, whether that means fixing practical problems or taking a more philosophical approach to situations that can’t be changed.

Ultimately, of course, an individual must empower him or herself – actively taking power, rather than passively receiving it from others. But there are things we can do that make the process easier. As with hope, empowerment comes from mastery of the concrete activities of life. We can empower the young by encouraging them to take responsibility for such activities, acknowledging their agency and praising their success. 

But praise must be used carefully: no-one is empowered by false or exaggerated praise – quite the reverse. Praise empowers only when it is honest, directing the recipient’s attention to genuine achievement and mastery.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.

Further support
For detailed advice and information about the needs of those with particular mental health issues try expert websites such as:
Mental health focus
In this series, Dr Stephanie Thornton has tackled a range of mental health issues, offering practical advice to school staff and leaders. This is the sixth article. To see the previous articles and for all SecEd’s mental health advice and guidance content, visit
Photo: iStock


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