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Spotting the signs: How to support students struggling with mental health

As teachers, you have a unique relationship with young people and as such are often privy to, or made aware, when young people are going through a tough time emotionally. Knowing how to support your own mental health and wellbeing, and that of your students’, is vital when it comes to providing a supportive learning environment. It is essential for your own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of students in your care, that you are able to deal with these situations appropriately.

When a student turns to you for help, it's because they trust and respect you. Sometimes, being the person that someone turns to can become a burden. When students confide in you, naturally you want to do all you can to help them. But it can be hard to know what to say, how to help, or who to turn to for advice. So here are some key messages to remember in order to look after the student, but also look after yourself.

• Show you care and give them time and attention. Often students don't need anything more than someone who is willing to just be there for them. Having a trusted adult that they can talk to is an important protective factor.
• Be yourself and be prepared to listen and understand what is happening to the student.
• Be non-judgmental, patient, calm, and accepting. The student may be reluctant to talk about their problem because they don't want to upset anyone, but they need to know they're doing the right thing by talking to someone.
• Know how and when to go to others for help. Encourage the student to seek help themselves. They may feel supported if you offer to go with them.
• If you feel out of your depth, don't try dealing with the situation alone. If you feel like the problem is serious or you have concerns for the student's welfare you must report this to your head teacher or Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO).

Sometimes a student doesn't come to you for help, but they may be behaving in ways that make you worried about them. There are some warning signs that you can look out for, but it is important to remember that any one of these alone (lasting only a short time) is normal. If you know a student with some of these signs lasting more than a couple of weeks, they may need some outside help.

Signs to look out for include:
• constantly thinking or talking about their problem/s
• acting and being very out of character (for example, a quiet person becoming loud and wild or an outgoing person becoming really quiet)
• unexpected outbursts of emotion
• having problems with sleep – sleeping too much or not enough
• changes to eating habits – not eating at all, or eating and then throwing up
• using drugs or alcohol
• taking part in risk-taking behaviours
• avoiding friends and social events that they would normally be part of
• threats or talk of killing themselves
• acting or talking like no one cares about them, nobody would notice if they went away, or the world would be a better place without them.

Next steps

If you have concerns for the welfare of a pupil or pupils you know, then don't be afraid to raise your concerns with them. They will often feel a sense of relief that someone has noticed and cares enough to ask how they are going. If your concerns are confirmed, then it is important to inform the appropriate staff within the school to ensure that the pupil receives the help and support they need to stay safe. Each school will have safeguarding policies that identify the processes for notifying a concern about risk of harm to a student.