Supporting young people's mental health

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 09/10/2019

Young people have no way of understanding mental health, and it’s our fault

My little boy was howling at 4am. ‘I’ve got to be up for work in a couple of hours!’ I screamed in my head. The following morning, my wife said something which has stuck with me. She said he probably had no clue about why he was up – we had to work it out for him. Turns out toddlers know what they’re feeling, but they’ve no idea why, or why everyone else in the entire world isn’t feeling the same way. I’d imagine if you felt that way about life it would be pretty stressful.

It turns out – to a lesser extent, of course – that this lack of understanding doesn’t properly change until adulthood. Even then, I’d argue that many adults don’t truly understand the way they feel.

The role of teachers

I’m not advocating that all behaviour is a cry for help and should be excused. I’m arguing that, for our own sanity as teachers, we need to understand that part of our role is to help young people understand themselves. A fundamental part of this is mental health.

Modern life enhances our risks of mental health problems. In addition, our obsession with outcomes – and the pressure we put on students to comply and engage with our lessons, for example – often don’t allow any room to properly understand mental health and wellbeing.

The one thing to understand when it comes to mental health is that we all have it. In the same way we have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ health, we also have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mental health.  However, young people don’t see it this way. They seem to experience stress and anxiety, but in an entirely separate and unrelated way to the messages about wellbeing that may – or may not – be wedged into our PSHE curriculum.

I was listening to an inspirational teacher attempt to deliver a PSHE lesson on wellbeing. There was just no buzz, no energy in the room. The students, usually inspired, moved and taking part in the teacher’s lessons, were flat. Is this the consequence of the obsession with outcomes? If it doesn’t have a grade, they don’t value it. If there isn’t a tangible outcome, they don’t care.

We need to start the mental health conversation with young people in a way that matters. We need to share our own stories. We need to offer students opportunities to plan for – and understand – their own wellbeing and mental health. Unless we get real about mental health and how to nurture it, we are simply compounding the issue for future generations and doing our young people a disservice.

Five ways to start the mental health and wellbeing conversation

1. Honesty and disclosure

Where appropriate – and where we feel comfortable – we should publicly share our experiences of mental health (good and bad) anecdotally, and through assemblies. This makes it real, especially if students see ‘real-life’ examples through adults in their life that they respect. Stories could also come from adults in the school you may not expect to have experienced mental health difficulties.

2. Space to reflect

I’ve had experience of a model called compassion-focused therapy. At its heart is the idea that we all have threats, drives and soothes in our minds. Perhaps asking students to reflect on their own take on this system could be a way to promote active reflection on mental health. We should encourage young people to reflect on what worries them and why, what they want to drive towards (if nothing, why?) and what truly brings them peace and calm? Beginning to train the mind to notice these things is essential to positive mental health.

3. Space to stop

Stopping is fundamental – grounding and ‘arriving’ in the present moment. Lots of schools are introducing a ‘mindful minute’ each day, in which students are in silence, focusing on the present moment. This provides the foundation for more outlets away from stress.

4. Embed it within the curriculum

Finding space in a curriculum to promote learning about mental health needn’t be a whole scheme of work. It could be visiting a topic or a particular individual and their experiences in order to promote understanding that ‘everyone has mental health’.

5. Promoting wellbeing

There are school-wide ways of promoting wellbeing. For example, by purposely not setting homework and giving students suggestions of how they can healthily spend their time. Small acts like this can provide a platform for discussions about mental health to happen at school and at home.


Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons (@andy_samm) is Head of Department in a large secondary school in the north of England, and author of 'The Compassionate Teacher'.