Supporting their mental health


As new mental health guidance for schools is released, child psychologist Karen Sullivan discusses how we can help to safeguard and develop our students' mental health.

I was heartened by the new DfE guidance to help schools spot mental health issues in teenagers, and offer appropriate support via counselling or referral to child mental-health experts (See 

While teachers arguably have enough on their plates, there is no doubt that they know their students, and are in a good position to notice changes in behaviour or, indeed, reasons for it.

I love the idea of teaching problem-solving – a skill that is shown to be absent in both bullies and victims – and helping kids to adjust to change, and to develop confidence and self-esteem. 

But most of all I love the idea of a happy, respectful classroom – where students can put their trust in teachers, which is the basis of respect, something that will aid both teachers and students.

Adolescence is a period of hormonal highs and lows; at the deepest dips, almost all teenagers experience feelings that lead them to experience temporary depression. For many, this is the catalyst for long-term mental health problems. Some enter these years with a predilection for problems, with inadequate infant and later bonding; absent, erratic or over-authoritarian parenting; or difficult home environments (and it must be stressed that this scenario is not confined to poorer families) creating pressured, frightened and rudderless kids. No child is born “bad”; nor is any child impossible to help. In the past, supportive families, communities, schools and doctors could identify and realign kids who were clearly sinking or going down unsavoury routes. 

Today, there are very few of these support networks in place, and kids tend to be “supported” instead by their online communities and peer groups, who often nudge them further down dark paths. I am perpetually distressed and troubled by the number of children who self-harm; the number that take their own lives. There is a darkness in today’s youth that I don’t think anyone has seen before. There is even, it seems, a valedictory message in tragic deaths, self-mutilation and even mass bullying. This is fed by a community clearly designed to obsess young people, whose identity is not yet firmly established enough to hold its own weight.

So, teachers, my message to you is that we need to make clear that identity is something that we grow. We need to teach kids that it’s okay to feel rubbish and that people who attack us have another agenda – usually inadequacies on their on part. We need to encourage kids to feel comfortable talking about their worries and their problems. Perhaps ask them to put their emotional barometer on the papers they hand in – it could be a simple emoticon to let teachers know, in confidence, how they are doing. Or provide slips that say “not feeling so good” that students can slot into boxes, so teachers know in advance who needs a bit of help. Knowing there is a support system there can make a difference to many, many vulnerable children. 

Many kids will be dissuaded from self-harm, suicide, or from anti-social behaviour, if they get at school what they do not get elsewhere: unconditional acceptance. No matter how dysfunctional a child may be, there is someone in there who can be reached with a little patience and determination. Someone crying out for a little attention, even if they appear not to want it. Let’s help them to find passions in their lives that will remove them from the everyday things that don’t work.

Let’s guide them. Where society fails, there are answers and a lot of charities and support groups out there are sending the same message and providing the back-up to help. As we go away for the summer, let’s think about what we can do together, to change a generation of kids who think it’s okay to troll, bully, criticise, harm and everything else. There are spaces in kids’ lives that need to be filled.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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