Mental health difficulties can affect a young person’s social interactions at school and their ability to engage with classroom learning so fostering a supportive environment and encouraging conversations about mental health and wellbeing can really make a difference to helping them keep on track and achieve their potential by:
helping young people identify strengths and resilience
identifying any support needs early
reducing the stigma around mental health
encouraging a positive whole-school approach to wellbeing
Despite this, supporting young people to open up and speak about their own mental health experiences can have its challenges; therefore it is very important to be aware of effective methods to help encourage these conversations, both individually and in a group. Keep in mind that each young person’s experience with mental health difficulties will be unique, and so it is vital to implement a person-centred approach.
There are several ways to encourage young people to reflect on their mental health and wellbeing:
Safe environment Environments can really make the difference to how someone will express themselves. Knowing when and where to have conversations about mental health and wellbeing can impact the willingness of the young person to share their experiences.
Hold the conversation in a quiet space were the young person feels comfortable and empowered to speak about their struggles. Inform the young person that any information will remain confidential but that you may need to notify a senior member of staff if what has been disclosed is suspected as a safeguarding issue.
Consider having a dedicated room or space at your school to hold these conversations. These are known as ‘sensory rooms’ that consider aspects of lighting (lava lamps or bubble tubes), comfortable seating (such as bean bags) and “fidget” items (tactile toys that young people can focus on if feeling anxious).
Hold the conversation with the young person in an area where there are distractions or where other people could overhear what is being discussed. It is also a good idea to avoid using a locked room or office as this can be intimidating and make the young person more reluctant to share their feelings.
Starting the conversation talking about mental health can feel strange to a young person. Knowing the best approach to begin the conversation will help you have a better understanding of the young persons’ difficulties. Previous whole-class discussions on wellbeing will help with understanding and familiarise young people with the topic & language
Build rapport and trust with the young person to help ease into the conversation; eg begin with topic(s) unrelated to any mental health difficulties they may be experiencing (i.e. personal interests).
Make use of open-ended questions, for example “how does that make you feel?” or “what was that like for you?” so that they have the opportunity to share their thoughts and/or feelings with you.
Recognize communication styles. A young person may prefer to draw or write down their thoughts and feelings – having these tools on hand can help facilitate the conversation in a bespoke way
Start the conversation assuming that you know what the young person would like to talk about. Try to avoid using closed questions (i.e. those that have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses), as this will limit how much of their feelings they are able to share.
Remaining calm sometimes listening to a young person’s’ story of what they’ve been going through can be difficult to hear, but it’s vital not to overreact – keep calm and remain encouraging
Reassure the young person and focus on how they are feeling rather than thinking about how anything they have disclosed is making you feel. Remember that your role is to offer support and guidance, so allow the young person to explore their options.
Push to immediately find solutions to the problem or stating what you would do if you were in their shoes.
Active listening being available to actively listen without judgement is a key skill
Use qualities that make you a good active listener
Push your own opinion or react negatively to what they have said, it may have taken them a long time to speak about the problem. Avoid dismissing or judging what they have shared with you, this could make them feel less likely to open up in the future.
Something to consider…
It is important to take into account Individual differences, so consider any additional needs of the young person, for example autism, anxiety or communication needs. Preparing for these can help the young person engage easier. It is imperative to be patient and offer extra support if required.
If you notice a young person has been behaving differently than usual, then set time aside to have a chat with them using the above steps. However, be mindful that the young person may not be ready to discuss their experiences at this time and respecting this is important – let them know that you are there for when they feel ready to talk.
Before starting a conversation with a young person ensure you are aware of what options you have and what resources to use if they appear to be in crisis during the course of the conversation. We have included information about a variety of topics in our toolkit as well as practical tools and helplines (both specific and general) in the section.
Whilst we are preparing to help others we must also look after ourselves, we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the teacher wellbeing section.
How to incorporate discussions around mental health in the classroom?
Generating conversations about mental health and wellbeing in the classroom will help young people to understand their own emotions, thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It can help normalise the topic, and reminds the young people that everyone has mental health, and the importance of sharing when they don’t feel good about their own mental health. Introducing wellbeing coping techniques such as mindfulness into the classroom could help young people regulate their own thoughts and feelings as well as developing the emotional vocabulary to help them describe these feelings. We have provided a number of resources including lesson plans and classroom activities to facilitate these discussions,, such as , , and .
Establishing mental wellbeing as central to young lives plays a critical role in their overall development. You may consider facilitating discussions around recognising factors in their personal life that have a positive or negative impact on their mental health. During class discussions, it is important to respect different views and encourage this respect among other children too
We have provided a diagram of an evidence-based framework that demonstrates how different environmental factors influence child development. There are five systems within the framework that are structured around the individual, so take the time to discuss with the young people how each system might contribute to their mental health and development.
The individual – The young person.
The microsystem– The environmental factors that directly impact the young person on a daily basis and where the young person may foster interpersonal relationships; e.g. parents, siblings, peers, teachers.
The mesosystem– The interrelations between two microsystems; e.g. teacher-child relationship and parent-child relationship.
The exosystem– The environment indirectly influences a young persons’ development, however directly influences one of the microsystems; e.g. a peer practises a different/opposing faith to the young person, the peer may impose their religious beliefs onto the young person.
The macrosystem– The sociocultural environment that continues to exist whilst the young person is developing; e.g. government laws and policies.
The chronosystem– inclusive changes to the environment that occur over the life-time such sociohistorical events; e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic.
The young person may relate to only one system or perhaps more, but helping them identify which system matters and influences them the most, can make the correlation between these factors and their mental wellbeing much clearer in finding strategies to cope when one of these systems impact their mental health.
Supporting young people to open up and speak about their own mental health experiences can have its challenges.
It is very important to be aware of effective methods to help encourage these conversations, both individually and in a group, while keeping in mind that each young person’s experience with mental health difficulties will be unique. A person-centred approach is vital.
In our ‘read more’ section we have offered some Do’s and Don’ts for how to engage a young person in discussions around mental health. These are broken down into 4 main categories; creating a safe environment, how to start the conversation, remaining calm no matter what they disclose, and some tips around active listening.
3 top tips!
Generating conversations around mental health and wellbeing in the classroom will help normalise the topics, making it easier for students to open up.
Take individual differences into account when beginning these conversations, adapting your language and the environment accordingly.
Acknowledge what the young person is saying, using positive words of affirmation to encourage them to open up more.