Do you feel comfortable talking to pupils about mental health?

Written by: Dr Asha Patel | Published:
Image: iStock

It’s good to talk. Especially so when students are facing challenges to their mental health. However, teachers often feel out of their depth when faced with these conversations on sensitive issues. Psychologist Dr Asha Patel offers her advice and reassurance

Schools today are increasingly faced with challenges associated with mental health. This is due to the rise in young people experiencing mental health and emotional wellbeing difficulties, within a situation where specialist services are not easily accessible to young people or teachers.

It is fair to say that teachers want to help young people but acknowledge that they require support and guidance in doing so. Offering the student an opportunity to talk about their difficulties with someone who they feel comfortable and safe with can be a huge source of support.

Young people spend a majority of their time in contact with teachers and quality student-teacher relationships develop. These relationships are supportive and provide a safe space for the young person to discuss their difficulties and to work collaboratively towards emotional wellbeing.

The struggle

The ability to identify and acknowledge that a student is struggling with some kind of emotional distress is difficult, however speaking to the student about their worries and concerns can be equally, if not more, challenging. There are a number of factors that may influence one’s decision to engage in discussion about these difficulties with students.

Some teachers have expressed feeling unskilled in talking about mental health difficulties; they worry about “putting ideas” into the student’s mind. This is especially so if it is a conversation about self-harming; teachers are often worried about “opening a can of worms” and not knowing how to cope with anticipated outcomes. It is hoped this article can offer some guidance and “tools” to support teachers to allow these conversations to take place.

The support

The quality of the teacher-student interaction is one of the key components in being able to engage and support the student in talking about the difficulties they are experiencing. It is important that teachers take the time to reflect upon their style of interaction. For example, they could consider how students might perceive them, and how they can develop and maintain their interpersonal style to aid their engagement with students. Are they perceived as warm, genuine, honest, interested and reliable?

Young people need to feel comfortable and supported as they may be discussing problems that they are struggling to make sense of, or those they may feel embarrassed about. It is important to acknowledge that the teacher’s role is not to become a counsellor or psychologist, but to use these therapeutic skills to provide a safe space for the student to understand that they can access help and support at school.

The how

Be interested in the person: Getting to know an individual is just as important as understanding their difficulties. Introduce conversations that enable you to get to know more about them (hobbies, interests, friendships, achievements). A genuine interaction allows the student to see the teacher as an interested “human being” that wants to help.

Protected time and space: Dedicate a reasonable amount of your time and keep it protected. It is important to ensure that you have done all you can to prevent the conversation from being disrupted. Think about which room would be most appropriate and comfortable.

Use supportive, non-verbal cues: This can demonstrate that you are genuinely listening and interested. For example, use eye contact, hand gestures, facial expressions and nodding. Ensure these non-verbal cues are used appropriately.

Take a curious stance: Being genuinely curious about the student’s difficulties can enable the student to express themselves more freely and help them to make sense of their experiences. You can do this by asking curious questions, for example “Tell me more about that?”, “How does that work out for you?”, “What does that mean?”, “Can you share an example of when that has happened?”

Encourage and empower: Encourage the student to seek support and feel empowered:

  • Identify how they can be supported and ask them for their preferred choice.
  • Work together to develop a list of possible options/solutions.
  • Provide an opportunity for the student to take responsibility for something in particular.
  • You may ask: “How can I help you?” “What would be most helpful?” “What can we do?” “When shall we do this?” “What might get in the way of you seeking support?”

Empathy: Empathise don’t sympathise. Being empathetic enables you to understand the student’s difficulties from their perspective. This can be achieved by trying to feel or imagine their emotional experience.

Dispelling myths and concerns

As human beings we form many opinions and judgements regarding mental illness and emotional wellbeing difficulties. Our personal experiences, the people around us or even the media may influence this. Therefore, below are some alternative ways to make sense of these challenges. Remember that these myths and opinions can become barriers and prevent young people and their families accessing support – stigma is an unfortunate reality.

Myth: They are just doing it for attention

This can prevent young people from accessing the support they need. Some individuals may view disruptive classroom or self-harming behaviour as attention-seeking, and therefore exclude the thought that the individual actually wants help. An alternative explanation is that the individual is struggling to communicate their difficulties, or they cannot even make sense of it themselves.

More often than not, it is these “disruptive behaviours” that elicit increased amounts of “attention” from teachers, professionals and families. However, in the long term it can bring negative attention and can further exacerbate the difficulties. So it may be that the behaviour is “help-seeking behaviour” not “attention-seeking behaviour”. This view can completely change how support is offered and help mentors to be supportive and genuine.

Myth: If you talk or ask about self-harm and/or suicide you will put the idea into their mind

If you are concerned that a student is engaging in self-injurious behaviours and/or feeling suicidal you can have a conversation about this. Initiating a conversation will not increase the risk of the student engaging in self-injurious behaviours, and there is the chance that you might be able to support them in seeking help.

Myth: They are too young to be depressed

Depression can be experienced by anyone, regardless of age. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression, and it is reported that more than 8,000 children under the age of 10 years suffer from severe depression (Green, McGinnity, Meltzer et al, 2005 – cited on the Young Minds website).

It is important to remember that every human being experiences emotions and therefore we are all at risk of experiencing depression and other mental health difficulties. Young people also experience significant life pressures, such as those related to school, relationships, home life and bereavement etc. Therefore young people are also exposed to factors which can precipitate emotional wellbeing difficulties.

It may be the case that the young person is feeling very low in mood but has not reached the diagnostic threshold of depression. Therefore, acknowledging that young people can also experience depression strengthens the need for them to have access to support in order to develop their resilience. Accessing early intervention support can prevent mental health difficulties escalating to a point where they negatively impact on the individual’s life.

Myth: Only their parents can help

Parents and families can be a great source of support, however the parents also need support and guidance themselves. Providing the young person with a package of support that includes input from specialist services, families and schools can be valuable in enhancing emotional wellbeing.

It is important to acknowledge that it is difficult to provide this “gold standard” of support due to resource constraints, however this can be achieved through schools and specialist services working together with support from local councils and the government.

Final thoughts

It is hoped that this article helps to build the foundations of feeling comfortable in “talking about the unsaid”, and engaging with young people who are experiencing emotional wellbeing difficulties. As individuals we all have our own style of engagement and therefore it is important that these tips and knowledge are applied sensitively. The quality teacher-student interaction is a prized resource that can be taken for granted, when it should be recognised as a critical pillar of support for young people.


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