Tips for teachers – talking about mental health in the classroom
Andi Smart is a Mental Health Practitioner and Teacher who works for a number of care and education establishments in mental health support and teaching roles; as well as developing health and social care qualifications for a number of awarding organisations.
Andi has a rich academic history including a BA in Fine Art and Psychology, PG Certificate in Psychology and Disability, MA in Community Psychology; PGCert in Post16 Education, HNC in Nursing Studies and is now completing an MSC in Health and Wellbeing.
We asked him for his top 10 tips for teachers on talking about mental health in the classroom.
- You don’t have to be an expert but ensure you’re confident in your own knowledge.
Are you confident in delivering discussions around mental health? Do you feel you know what to say? Do you have an understanding of children and young people’s mental health?
If not, you could consider some mental health training. You can access a lot of information and resources online or you could consider a short qualification to get you started.
Learning Curve Group offer a number of FREE CPD courses to teachers from NCFE and CACHE, including a Level 2 Award in Mental Health Awareness.
- Start talking about mental health early.
The sooner you begin these discussions in class, the better. Indicating to your learners that they are in a safe space to speak up and that it’s ok not to be ok will make discussions easier in lessons or in private.
- Make mental health familiar.
Explaining that everyone has ‘mental health’ in a similar way to having physical health can be really helpful; as well as questioning with learners whether their mental health is in a good condition or if it need a bit of extra care. Start by talking about something familiar. Generally, people are aware of their feelings and having different feelings, so this is a good place to start.
Create mind maps for each of these emotions:
- feeling good
- feeling bad
How does each of these emotions feel? How do these emotions manifest? What are the signs and symptoms?
Emotional – less patience, inability to concentrate, feeling angry / upset / frustrated.
How do each of these feelings manifest in a person's life?
What are the triggers and consequences for each of these feelings?
You can do this exercise as a group with a white board or flip chart, individually or anonymously - depending on how the class feels about sharing this information.
Once you’ve covered recognised and accepted feelings, you can then move on to deeper discussions, such as:
What does anxiety and/or depression feel like?
What are the triggers? Consequences?
- Encourage acceptance and recognise the positives of diversity; everyone is different and unique – this is OK.
- The question is not "What's wrong with me?", but "What has happened to me?"
What do we understand by the concept: the social determinants of (mental) health and wellbeing? Share examples, discuss. For example, fear, abuse, violation, violence, bullying, poverty, loss, unemployment and / or grief.
- Encourage your learners to talk about how they feel.
Discuss the importance that it is OK to feel sad / angry / upset / frustrated, for example but we need to share, with friends or teachers, why we felt this emotion.
- Introduce the concepts of self-care and mutual support.
What are your learners’ thoughts about self-care? Ask your learners what they understand about self-care. It’s not always face masks and bath bombs, sometimes it can be as simple as getting out of bed.
This can be done verbally, in the group, or written down individually and then handed in to be shared anonymously 'from the front', or by passing along so that each person is sharing someone else's notes/experiences/thoughts, etc.
- Get creative and normalise the conversation.
Lessons needn’t be entirely led by discussion. This is a perfect opportunity to use creative teaching methods such as art or drama.
Encourage your learners to visually represent what they’ve learned and then remember it by creating a display for posts, mood boards or post-it notes.
You could also consider inviting someone to talk about their own experiences. There’s a lot of people, books, videos out there that discuss mental health in an accessible way.
- Create a non-judgemental, facilitative, supportive learning environment.
Talk about what makes a learning environment inaccessible. Learners will be able to speak from experience on what would make them likely/unlikely to feel safe and comfortable to open up and talk.
- Get learners to create posters and display them around the room
- Get someone in to talk about their experiences of mental health
- Find funny clips / books / audios – get the students talking!
- Don’t worry about asking for help.
Are you worried about a learner? Is the learner’s mental health deteriorating? Have you noticed the warning signs? Do you know/remember the warning signs are?
CACHE have created a useful handbook which has been designed to help educators create and maintain a healthy environment in the classroom and promote positive mental health and well-being of learners. You can download this for free here. Also, you could speak with parents / colleagues and get advice.
Think about what to do in a mental health emergency.
Explore your local crisis mental health team and have their numbers saved or written down. This could be a policy shared throughout your school, if you don’t yet have one.
A good starting point is the NHS website, especially the children’s mental health page.