How to support colleagues and students with mental health issues

There’s been a big surge in pupils seeking help for mental health issues. According to a study by the NSPCC released earlier this year the numbers of mental health referrals have risen by a third in the last three years.

Teachers are also feeling the strain. A study published earlier this year by the Leeds Beckett University found more than half of Britain's teachers have a diagnosed mental health problem. Our own Health Survey found that 75% of school and college staff and leaders surveyed said they had experienced psychological, physical or behavioural symptoms because of work.

Helping colleagues and students who you think may be facing or heading for a crisis isn’t easy. Suggesting someone seeks professional help may seem the obvious step to take. But a colleague or student may well be resistant to admitting there’s a problem. So what’s the best way to help them?

Offering a shoulder to colleagues

Sometimes all someone in distress needs is a place to go, somewhere to talk, someone who will listen. If it’s a colleague you could suggest they call our free 24-hour helpline where our counsellors are very experienced at helping teachers who have mental health needs. However such a suggestion could cause a colleague to retreat into their shell. Perhaps they’re embarrassed about seeming in need? If you think that may be the case why not try saying something such as, “I’m here if you need a rant.” Since we all need to rant sometimes that may be an easier approach.

If you feel able to be more proactive try to get them on their own and ask an “open” question - one that can’t be answered yes or no and may draw them out to talk more. So something like, “What are you finding most difficult at the moment?” If you’ve ever had mental health issues yourself, it may help to own these. “I had to have some time off for stress a while back, it happens to most of us.”

Not all mental health problems are solved simply by talking about them but it can be a step in the right direction. If you can get a colleague to open up, just let them talk. Don’t try to offer solutions or advice. Try using the counselling technique of “reflecting back” to them what they are saying rather than jumping in with suggestions.

Intervention

However if you think a colleague’s problems are severe and may put them or their students in danger you should refer this the head of department, deputy head or head. You can only do so much to help a colleague. If they need a professional intervention, this is beyond something you can do on your own. So seek advice on what’s best to do. Sometimes when someone is deeply mired in anxiety or depression, they can’t see a way out by themselves and will need help.

Students with mental health issues

With students or pupils facing a mental health problem the issue is far more acute as you have a duty of care towards them and can’t tiptoe around it as you would a colleague. If you think a pupil or someone in your charge is displaying unusual signs of stress and distress, behaving in a way that’s out of the ordinary for them, has become quiet and withdrawn or, alternatively, suddenly loud and boisterous these could be a child unconsciously sending signals they need help. The best thing to do first is tell someone - a colleague, head of department or deputy head. You may be tempted to contact the child’s parents but depending on their age, this may be the last thing they want you to do, though that may be essential in the end. Seek advice and guidance first from colleagues. Share the burden, don’t carry it on your own.

You can also try a direct approach to the student. Try to get them on their own and ask them how they’re coping and if they have any issues they want to raise with you. This might be sufficient for you to be able to deal with it without taking it any further. If your school has a counsellor or access to counselling, suggest they make an appointment.

Being aware

Students more at risk of developing a mental health problem are those from a care background, adopted or fostered, have learning difficulties or have a chaotic or disadvantage home life. Also if there’s a relationship breakdown at home, this can affect a child’s behaviour but isn’t necessarily indicative of a mental health problem. A certain amount of stress in such a situation is possible. Sometimes teachers and teaching assistants can offer invaluable safe spaces for a student to share their anxiety and upset about their parents divorcing and maybe getting new partners. Some gentle, discreet inquiries can reveal if this is why a child seems suddenly distressed.

Keep your ears open for how students to talk to each other - they tell their friends far more than they tell teachers and parents. This isn’t snooping - it’s being hypervigilant about the young people in your care.

If you think a student is showing signs of stress, be more flexible with assignments and homework deadlines. Sometimes an understanding ear is enough for a child or student to feel better. Be aware also that some mental health issues may be due to a crisis in identity or friendships.

Here to help

We are always here to listen to any issues or problems you may have including how best to help a colleague or student with mental health needs. So please don’t hesitate to call us. Our counsellors have a very great deal of experience in education and mental health issues. You can phone our confidential helpine 24/7 on 08000 562561.