Talking to students about mental health

Counsellor in blue shirt talking to boy on metal bench

This will help you to:

  • start a conversation about mental health and mental illness

  • support young people to talk about mental health.

Want to start a conversation with your student about their mental health but don't know where to start? You're not alone. Many teachers feel out of their depth when it comes to bringing up the topic of individual mental health with students.

Some people may feel nervous that they don't know enough, that they'll give the wrong advice or students will respond negatively. While it's okay to feel these feelings, there are things you can do to feel confident to talk to your students about their mental health.

When young people do seek help, it is most typically from informal sources such as friends and family rather than professional sources. Read our advice on starting a conversation about youth mental health.

Research

Start by researching mental health and support services available for students at your school, in your local community and online. This might mean talking to the school counsellor or reading about common mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. Researching before you talk to a student will help you feel confident if they say they aren't okay.

The student you are concerned about may already be working with the school counsellor, so it's also important to check in with the school wellbeing team and establish if there has already been an intervention. Communication of this nature is important to ensure the student feels supported, but not overwhelmed.

Ask if they are OK

If someone is going through a really tough time, it can be a massive relief to be given permission to say 'I'm not OK' and to be given an easy opportunity to ask for help. These steps can help you to initiate a conversation with a student you are worried about.

Tip 1. Be receptive

  • Take the lead, show initiative and ask: "Are you OK?".

  • Put the invitation out there: "I've got time to talk".

  • Maintain eye contact and sit in a relaxed position - positive body language will help you both feel more comfortable.

  • Often just spending time with the person lets them know you care and can help you understand what they're going through.

Tip 2. Use ice breakers to initiate a conversation

Use open-ended questions such as "So tell me about...?", which require more than a "yes" or "no" answer. You may also like to use the following questions to start a conversation:

  • "You know, I've noticed that you've seemed really down/worried/stressed for a long time now. Is there anyone you've been able to talk to about it?".

  • "Lots of people go through this sort of thing. Getting help will make it easier".

  • "I hate to see you struggling on your own. There are people that can help. Have you thought of visiting your doctor?".

Tip 3. Practice your listening skills

  • Listen to what a person is saying: be open-minded and non-judgmental - sometimes, when someone wants to talk, they're not always seeking advice, but they just need to talk about their concerns

  • Be patient: let the person take their time

  • Avoid telling someone what to do: it is important to listen and try to help the other person work out what is best for them.

Tip 4. Be encouraging

  • Encourage physical health: maintaining regular exercise, a nutritious diet and getting regular sleep helps to cope in tough times

  • Encourage the person to seek professional help: from their family doctor, a support service or counsellor, or a mental health worker

  • Encourage self-care: sometimes people need to be encouraged to do more to look after their own needs during a difficult time.

Tip 5. Be helpful

What not to do when trying to help someone. It is unhelpful to:

  • Pressure them to "snap out of it", "get their act together" or "cheer up"

  • Stay away or avoid them

  • Tell them they just need to stay busy or get out more

  • Suggest alcohol or drugs

  • Assume the problem will just go away.

It's more helpful to:

  • Listen to their concerns

  • Acknowledge how they are feeling

  • Let them know you care about their wellbeing

  • Help them identify next steps for further support.

What can I do now?

  • Read about the benefits of internet and social media.