How to Talk to Students About Mental Health: Top 10 Tips

It is vital in any context that students feel able to talk to staff at all levels about their mental health. Often this can be a challenging conversation and one that students may be reluctant to enter. Yet, being prepared for that conversation and being able to offer students the right help at the right time is essential.

In this blog we explore our top 10 tips for talking to students about mental health.

1. Know the signs and act

It is important for all staff within a university or higher education institution to be able to know the signs of a student facing mental health challenges. It could be that their behaviour has suddenly changed, that they are less engaged with their studies or that they have become isolated or withdrawn. Recognising these signs and acting early is key to being able to open up any conversation with a student on mental health.

2. Make the time to talk

Often it may be the case that staff fail to pick up signs of a student facing mental health challenges as they are busy with their everyday role or preoccupied with other tasks. It is vital that mental health practitioners, but also teaching and learning staff are able to set out time where students know they can talk. Whether that be opening a mental health open hours session, running a coffee catch up or simply leaving a door open to students passing by, being seen to be available and having time for students it essential.

3. Be approachable

Make it clear to all students that they can talk to you about mental health or personal challenges. Being vocal on mental health issues and letting all students know you have time to talk may be an important nudge for a student who may have not spoken to anyone.

Often students facing mental health challenges may feel reluctant or nervous to discuss their challenges. As such, staff being open and showing a willingness to have that conversation could be essential.

4. Initiate conversation

When faced with a student that may be facing mental health difficulties, it is important to be able to initiate a conversation. Ask the student how they are feeling or about how they are managing. There is no need to be probing or forceful. The aim is simply to let the student know you are happy to talk and that you are interested in their welfare. It could be that a simple ‘How are you?’ or ‘How has your week been?’ could be crucial in allowing a student to open a dialogue.

5. Show understanding and compassion

It is key to be able to show compassion to the student and show them that you care. Often students may feel that they are isolated and alone in their problems. Being able to relate to the student and show that you understand what they are going through could be the first step in supporting the student.

Showing that you recognise their problems and being able to relate that to others or yourself can show a sense of understand. That doesn’t mean you need to claim you are the expert or that you even have the solutions. The aim is simply to show that you are receptive and care.

6. Show a relaxed and receptive body language

Students sharing their mental health challenges with staff will often feel uncomfortable and maybe even reluctant to fully open up. It is therefore important you are able to show you are relaxed and that they are speaking to you in a safe space. You should maintain eye contact with the student, use relaxed body language and ensure you are not distracted. Whilst speaking to the student they should be your sole focus and the student should be able to feel that they can relax too.

7. Think about the environment

When speaking to you the student should not feel intimated or like they are entering a formal meeting structure. As such, remove any desks between you and use chairs facing one another so the student feels they are speaking to you on equal terms. Consider the setting for the discussion before starting a conversation. Ensure you are not likely to be interrupted by other students, emails or the usual distractions that make up the working day.

8. Listen

The most important part of the conversation is to listen and show that you are hearing what they are saying. This conversation is not about finding immediate answers or necessarily to even often advice. The aim should always be to show that you are there for the student to talk to. It may well be that the student has never opened up before or vocalised their difficulties. For the student being able to share their challenges or experience could be a huge relief, but also extremely difficult. Your role should therefore be to show your full attention and be prepared to hear what they have to say.

9. Don’t claim to be the expert or offer immediate solutions

Unless you are a mental health practitioner or a qualified professional in this field, you should not be looking to offer answers or solutions to their mental health challenges. It may be that the student needs expert support or counselling and you should make it clear to the student that you are not able to offer those solutions yourself.

You can certainly offer them reassurance and tell them that you are there to listen, but you should always leave the long-term support to the experts.

You should also respect the challenges they are raising with you. Even if they seem small, you should not appear flippant or dismissive of their concerns.

10. Know where to point students and support next steps

Its very important that having had any conversation with a student you are able to point them in the right direction for support. The first port of call should always be to direct students to your student services team and mental health professionals. Your student support team will be able to offer targeted support and help the student more directly. You may also want to point the student to online resources from your institution where they may be able to find advice and guidance on mental health.

Having resources and contact at hand for any student in need is always helpful after a conversation. If it appears that a student is a risk to themselves or others you should always inform the appropriate contacts within your institution so that action can be taken.

Just because you have pointed the student to mental health practitioners that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t carry the conversation on. A student may appreciate being able to talk to someone and raise concerns and you should be open to follow up conversations. However, you should make clear that formal advice and support should be delivered by mental health practitioners.

Want to learn more? 

Are you looking for solutions in how best to support students in higher education with mental health issues? Attend our interactive online training course with student mental health expert Dr Dominique Thompson on 1st July 2021. To find out more click on the button below:

Training Course: Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing