One young person in every ten will experience mental health difficulties in any given year; it is therefore essential that teachers are open about the subject and are comfortable in talking about it.
Through my work in schools, I have been asked many times as to how school staff can better support pupils with their mental health. Many teachers find it difficult to initiate a conversation about such a sensitive and often awkward issue. On a personal note, I have experienced anxiety disorders and have both positive and negative experiences of how this was dealt with whilst in the education system.
Using such personal experience, I have put together the following 6 tips on supporting pupils with their mental health. Think APPLES!
Approach! It can be difficult to know where to begin when discussing mental health, so the best thing to do is keep it casual. Don't interrogate the pupil; allow them to open up in their own way and in their own time. Try not to come across as intimidating, don't fire questions at them and avoid giving your own opinions if possible as this will help the young person to express their feelings openly and honestly, instead of telling you what they think you want to hear. Mental health affects every single one of us; it is how it affects us and how we deal with it that varies. My parents told me about celebrities like Adele and Daniel Radcliffe, who have spoken openly about their mental health. Using such examples can help pupils understand that mental health isn't something to be ashamed of; it affects everyone, even Harry Potter!
Positivity! Talking to your students is a positive thing! Anything they discuss with you is great! Reminding your class that they can talk about anything with you, big or small, will reinforce a sense of security and belonging, instilling the knowledge that whatever they say will be heard and understood without being judged. A positive environment where mental health can be discussed freely can really make a difference!
Patience! It may take a while for your pupil to feel able to open up, and as teachers this can be saddening and frustrating, but remember, Rome wasn't built in a day. Assure the pupil that they have nothing to worry about and that they can talk to you about anything, when they are ready. They may not want to open up immediately, I know I didn't! It takes time to understand our own feelings and what we are going through, let alone articulate it. They may also be ashamed and embarrassed of what they are feeling and worry that you are going to judge them or think they are mad. Also, don't push it! Nobody likes to be nagged. Pressuring children can cause distress, so as hard as it may be, give it time and let them get there on their own. Respect the young person’s feelings and they are more likely to want to talk to you.
Listen! We have all had moments where we just need to vent and get things off our chest. We want someone to confide in, someone to support us and listen to our feelings, your pupils may feel the same. You don't need a degree in psychology; you just need to be there for them when they need you. Try to let them do most of the talking, let them feel in control of the conversation, but at the same time, acknowledge what they are saying. Don't dismiss anything, ensure they know that everything they say is being taken seriously.
Encouragement! Encourage your pupils to pursue what makes them happy; mental illness doesn't exclude them from doing what they want and having fun. However, mental health difficulties can stop children from interacting socially. I often found myself sitting on my own in my room on the computer so I was encouraged to join a local youth group which really helped increase my confidence.
Support! Knowing the best thing to say or do for your pupils certainly isn't always easy or obvious. This can be distressing not only for the young person but for yourself too. There is support available for you and the young people that you teach. Sometimes talking to somebody like an aunty or uncle can help, but there are also helplines like Samaritans, which allow individuals to talk to someone impartial over the phone. This can reduce embarrassment as many find it easier talking to someone they don't know. There are helpful websites like Young Minds that can offer advice and signpost routes to more support. Liaise with parents/guardians and discuss the options available. Set up meetings with colleagues to discuss best practice. Most importantly, know that you are not on your own! Mental illness can be challenging but remember, you supporting the young person will make all the difference.
To find out more about mental health and how you can support the young people that you teach, click here.