‘Teachers aren’t experts – they need tools to talk about mental health’

“Teachers should have mental health training.” “Teachers should be trained in counselling.” “Teachers should understand the signs of mental illness.”  The list of things teachers “should” be doing is endless. And more often than not, the suggestions miss the mark. An education and mental health adviser writes in Tes.

So how about this one?

“Teachers should be given the tools and language to have a conversation about a pupil’s levels of stress, distress, pain or overwhelm.”

I meet young people every week who have lost someone, experienced trauma, just come out of a relationship and who face financial hardship. The reality is that at any given time, we may find ourselves in a place of immense distress that we are unable to tolerate or process.

Educational provisions must play a role in supporting young people’s mental health. I’m yet to find one that doesn’t want to. It’s the resources and funding that remains the issue.

So where’s the hope?

Any clinician will tell you that often an effective care pathway has to contain a mixture of clinical and social resource. It’s within this social element that teachers can play a part in supporting our young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

I see and understand the apprehension of educational staff when it comes to discussing mental health with their students, as a result of these lines being blurred. It’s up to leaders within provisions to take a nuanced and sensible approach to conversations in school around mental health.

Let’s be explicit in stating that, in the first instance, staff are often responding to stress or distress. We want our staff to foster good relationships with our students and so it is no surprise that young people seek out adults they trust and have a relationship with. Our systems and thought processes can sometimes forget this.

We must equip those staff with the necessary tools. It’s completely normal for teachers to feel apprehensive about this and feel as if they’re not sure what to say through fear of making things worse.

What can staff say when they have these conversations? What might the content of the conversations include? I suggest the following:

  • Use humanising adjectives such as “heavy”, “overwhelmed” and “saturated”.
  • Let’s use emotion theory to remind us that we don’t experience emotion singularly. Often I hear staff ask, “How are you feeling?” and then allow one response. Emotion theory tells us that we don’t feel emotions singularly and that our body enters an arousal state way before we label emotions. That process is confusing and certainly not straightforward for many young people. We need to allow more time to think on this, and say things like, “Let me know later today  or tomorrow what you think.”
  • Read more 

Read the full article and more helpful tips on how to speak with a distressed student ‘Teachers aren’t experts – they need tools to talk about mental health’

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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