inTuition taster: Support role

Teachers may find themselves facing learners suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. Knowing how to respond and where to direct them to is vital, says Kiechelle Degale.

There is no doubt the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll in many ways on mental health, not just for teaching staff but on our learners too.

As teaching staff, it’s important to sharpen the tools in our toolbox so we can deliver the best service to our learners. One of the most common and ever-growing areas to support would be our response to mental health in the classroom. However, it’s important to note that we are not being asked to respond as medical professionals but rather in a support role, in the way we recognise signs and symptoms and understand how to guide and signpost.

The following tips will help you support learners with their mental health in the classroom.


1. Undertake Training

Consider having some mental health training or becoming a mental health first aider. You will be trained on how to recognise the warning signs and symptoms for mental health issues and also on how to recognise a crisis and what to do.

Some of these developing conditions can be picked up in language and by practising active listening. For instance, some examples that may indicate a red flag may be:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  • Severe mood swings or drastic changes in behaviour or personality
  • Talking about feeling helpless or hopeless and not wanting to be around any more
  • Using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism
  • Ongoing breaking of commitment, not showing up or continuous lateness. This can initially appear as poor time management but can also be a sign of developing anxiety

If a learner is showing signs of a crisis, for instance actively self-harming or talking about suicide, it’s critical to get appropriate professional help. An ambulance may need to be called so they can have access to their local mental health team for an assessment.


2. Know where to go for help

Ensure you know who to turn to or where to find support: your line manager, HR, safeguarding lead, local mental health referral services or mental health team, other local specialist support or simply encouraging your learner to go to their GP to access appropriate professional help.

Sometimes supporting learners who are experiencing mental health issues can take its toll, so it’s important you also make time for yourself. Your own self-care is paramount.


3. Ask learners what help they need

If learners have ongoing mental health issues or an existing diagnosis, they may already be aware of what has worked well in the past. If they already use some good and helpful coping strategies, it’s better to let them lead on what works best.

If they feel overwhelmed, listening to them and helping them to think about a few things they can incorporate into their lives based on their own likes and dislikes can be a useful approach. Setting realistic and achievable goals can give them a boost and raise their confidence in the classroom.


4. Let them know you’re there

Have a place learners can go to talk about mental health and a strong open-door policy. I am a great believer in the statement ‘conversations can change/save lives’. Being present and actively listening to someone in emotional pain can provide much-needed support and help to take stress levels down.

Let them know lots of people have also experienced these feelings, and that with the right support, recovery is possible and likely. Also explain that it’s okay if they don’t feel okay right now and you are there to listen.


5. Create a positive environment

Create a safe, positive learning environment encouraging inclusive language that actively reduces the stigma of mental health. The everyday language we use, sometimes without much thought, can have a huge impact on someone experiencing mental health issues.

It can be a helpful distinction to separate the person from the illness. For instance, for someone showing signs of developing depression it may be more helpful to say ‘you are experiencing depression right now’ instead of saying ‘you are depressed’. A simple tweak in language can make the difference in how someone communicates the illness to themselves.


6. Promote helpful resources

Gather resources, websites, helplines and apps (see Useful resources) and make sure they are easily accessible on various platforms such as posters in key areas, and the organisation’s intranet and website. You can also display resources in safe areas, such as the back of toilet doors, so they can be accessed discreetly.

Kiechelle Degale is lecturer and mental health first aid instructor at Waltham Forest Adult Learning Service.

Useful resources