What to do when: A student tells you about their mental illness

Your day starts off like any typical school day: collecting homework, passing out worksheets, and teaching the day’s lesson. Then at the end of class, one of your students stays behind to tell you that they’ve been struggling with mental illness. Perhaps they tell you that they’ve been feeling sad and hopeless, or that they have anxiety so bad that they’re having trouble focusing. You might have even suspected your student was struggling because of their slipping grades or some other change in their behavior. Whether or not this news is a surprise, you might find yourself feeling unsure of what to do next. Use this basic three-step approach to guide your response and to help you feel confident in assisting your student with finding the resources they need.

Avoid saying things like “I think your child has ADHD” or "your child needs medication" or "you should go get your child tested." While teachers often have great insights and instincts, they are generally not qualified to offer opinions like these. Doing so could put you and your school in a difficult position – and end up creating more problems for the family.

1. Establish Rapport with the Student

First of all, the fact that your student felt comfortable enough to disclose their concerns to you is very important. This means that you already have a strong bond with them and they have some level of trust in you. Secondly, the fact that they are reaching out to you means that they know they need help. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, many people don’t reach out for help until they feel that they can’t change things on their own. Since your student feels safe talking to you and is asking for help, it’s important for you to affirm that they did the right thing in reaching out to you. Show them that you are listening, and react calmly to what they are saying. By responding this way, you will help them feel confident that they made the right decision to talk to you.

Thank the student for being brave and sharing what is going on. Let them know that you will be there to help them figure out what to do next and explain that you will consult with the school counselor and/or their parents (if appropriate). Remember, your student is placing their trust in you and you want to be sure that you are honoring their trust—so it’s important to tell them what steps you are going to take.

Finally, ask them if they feel safe going home and/or being on their own. In other words, you want to make sure that they are not actively suicidal or capable of harming themselves or others. If they are, then help them access emergency services. (Follow your school’s protocol on this and be sure to involve other team members at this point.) If not, set a time to meet again with the student after you’ve had time to consult with your school counselor.

2. Notify the School Counselor and/or Parents

Your next step is to notify either the school’s counselor or social worker and, in some cases, notify the student’s parents. Be certain that when speaking to the parents, you only report to them what the student said, so that it doesn’t sound as if you are giving them a diagnosis.

Check your school’s policy to see what the recommended course of action is. In some cases, it might be harmful to the student if their parents knew they had spoken to you, so it may not always be appropriate to inform his or her parents of what is going on. For example, if the student lives in an abusive household, you may not want to share that the student is struggling with focus at school and that their grades are dropping. Never hesitate to check with your school counselor or administrator for clarity.

When consulting with the school counselor, let them know what the student disclosed and ask them to recommend next steps. At this point, the counselor will probably assume leadership of the situation based on the student’s needs. Let the counselor know that you are available to help in whatever way they think is best. They may recommend that the student meet with them individually, or they may ask you to come with the student for support. The counselor may recommend regular meetings with the student, help the student set up individual therapy with a counselor outside the school, create classroom accommodations, or set up a parent meeting to discuss options.

If your school does not have a school counselor or social worker, communicate your concerns to the student’s parents and recommend that they seek out a mental health evaluation and/or treatment for the student. Your school may have a list of counselors they frequently refer to that you can provide to the parents.

3. Check in Regularly with Student and School Counselor

Finally, it’s important to check in regularly with the student to see how they are doing. Even though the school counselor is likely facilitating the process of helping to connect the student with the resources they need, you were that student’s first point of contact and the person that they first trusted with their story. By touching base with your student every day in the beginning and every week as time goes on, you continue to honor the trust they put in you and let them know the lines of communication are always open. Simply asking “How are you today?” shows that you care while also respecting their privacy. A simple question like that allows the student to disclose as much or as little information as they’d like.

Julia Marie Hogan is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Chicago. In addition to her work as a psychotherapist, she leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book It's Okay to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your worth and will be published in June. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. For more information, please visit juliamariehogan.com.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.