What to do if you’re concerned about a student’s mental health
Early identification of concerns can prevent future mental health problems. While it’s not the educator’s job to diagnose or provide treatment, you’re a critical and supportive link between students who are struggling and the resources they need to flourish. You’re also part of their ongoing circle of support.
Schools are the most common place where Ontario youth access help
The 2014 Ontario Child Health Study results highlight why your role is so important:
- 18 to 22% of children and youth in Ontario meet the criteria for a mental disorder, but less than one third of those children and youth have contact with a mental health provider.
- If children and youth do have contact with a mental health provider, school is the most common place where they access support.
How to identify when a student may need mental health support
You’re in a position to recognize when a student may need additional support because you have almost daily contact with them. You might notice a change in their behaviour, or pick up on a pattern. Watch for changes in performance or behaviour and consider
- appropriateness for the student’s age and stage
- interference with the student’s life
We’ve developed a short heuristic to help you notice and identify students who may need more support – ONE CALL.
Observe – Know your students’ typical behaviour and responses.
Notice – Notice changes in behaviour or mood of the student.
Explore – Seek out information about the things you are observing – you can use the resources on our site to help.
Connect – Consider connecting to others in the circle of support depending on the nature and severity of your concern. Follow your school and board protocols and pathways.
Ask – Make a connection with the student to see if they are open to a conversation. Ask the student how you can help.
Listen – Actively listen and validate the student’s experience.
Link – Link students to other supports in the school where appropriate.
Resources to help with early identification
How to access help for a student
Always follow your school board’s protocol for accessing support for the student. If you’re not sure what your protocol is, ask your principal or a member of your school’s mental health leadership team. Use the following steps as a guide:
- If your concern is urgent (e.g. suicide risk or risk to others/imminent danger), act immediately to activate school protocols. Never leave the student alone.
- If there’s no immediate threat, track your observations. Try universal classroom mental health strategies.
- If appropriate, have a conversation about your observations with the student and/or their family.
- You can have a conversation with your principal, vice-principal or someone else on your school’s mental health leadership team, either for guidance or to help connect the student to appropriate supports.
- Once other staff are involved, additional district-level supports may be accessed and the student may be referred to professional mental health support within the school board or community.
Your role extends beyond helping the student access support. For students experiencing a mental health problem, it can be a long road to wellness. They’ll need your daily support and encouragement.
How to talk with students or parents/caregivers about mental health concerns
When you’re concerned about a student, often the next step after documenting observations and perhaps consulting with someone on the mental health leadership team is to speak with the student or their family about your concerns. Remember, your ongoing efforts to build trusting relationships with families is important. It’s easier to have difficult conversations when a relationship already exists.
Here are some sample prompts from Supporting Minds to help you start a conversation with parents or guardians:
- “I’ve noticed that Tanya is having a hard time settling in class. She is easily distracted and often has difficulty focusing. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed this at home.”
- “Arvin seems very quiet in class and finds it difficult to answer questions when I call on him, even though he knows the answer. Have other teachers mentioned this before?”
- If the parent disagrees, then an appropriate follow-up comment might be: “I see this behaviour often in class, and it’s affecting Tanya’s learning. Do you have any suggestions about what we can do to help Tanya manage this behaviour?”
Supporting Minds provides the following guidelines for educators when addressing mental health concerns with students.
- Find an appropriate place to have the conversation so that the student can talk freely in a safe, private setting.
- Start the conversation by explaining that there are limits to what can be kept confidential.
- Offer information about what they have observed in an objective, non-judgmental way.
- Ask if the student would like to talk about the teacher’s observations.
- Indicate that they are there to listen and, if the problem feels too big, suggest the possibility of involving someone else who might be better able to help.
- Talk about how to involve the student’s parent/guardian in the solution, as appropriate.
Here are conversation prompts that can help:
“Najla, you’ve been having difficulty paying attention since you joined us last semester. Do you have this difficulty in other classes?”
“James, I’ve noticed that you seem quieter than usual. Is this only happening in this class, or are you feeling this way in other classes?”
The goal is to start a conversation. If the student acknowledges a problem, you can work with them to put supports in place. The student may disclose that they’re already receiving support outside of school. In this case, you can ask them how you can help them in the classroom.
More tips for talking with parents and families
Talking with Parents and Families about Mental Health
Engaging in Wellbeing and Safety Issues by Ontario Teachers’ Federation