As a teacher, there are many duties and roles that you fill on any given day. One of these roles may be acting as a supporter and confidant, sometimes dealing with situations that may be out of the scope of your official duties as an educator. Due to the high instance of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety in youth and young adults, there is a higher demand for educators to be familiar with how to identify and refer at-risk students.

Teachers often are the first-responders to students that escalate emotionally/mentally and need help. Our intention is to prepare teachers to know what to look for in students and then how to help or direct students to other resources.

What is my role as an educator?

Your role as a teacher is primarily to teach. However, in the course of your classes, you are at a unique place to notice the preliminary signs that something may be wrong with a student.

Your job is not to be a counselor. Your responsibility in this role is to learn how to identify students that may be hurting or at-risk, and to refer those students to the appropriate resource.

Where is the appropriate resource?

Start by becoming familiar with the resources available in the school. Most schools offer student counselors that you can reach out to. Additionally, public schools in PA are required to have a Student Assistance Program.

Your in-school resources will also have information on community agencies. Have a list of this information readily available in your desk so that when you notice concerning signs, you know who to refer your student to.

How do I talk about this with a student?

Honesty is always the best policy. Students – especially high school and college aged – can tell when you’re being less than truthful. In addition, youth that are struggling with depression or anxiety tend to be more in-tuned to the nuances of nonverbal communication. So our suggestion is to just be real.

Here’s a suggested script that may help bring up the conversation:

“[Student Name], Can I see you after class for a minute?”
“I’ve noticed some behavior that is concerning me. I noticed that your grades are dropping, you’re missing more days of school, and you seem tired all the time. I just wanted you to know that if you’re struggling, there are resources here at school that can help. If you want, I can go to the counselor with you if you are nervous going by yourself.”

This simple script does three important things:
– Lets the student know that you have noticed them and the change in behavior
– Lets the student know that you care and are available to talk
– Lets the student know that there are resources at school they can utilize, and that they don’t have to access those resources alone.

Some other great questions to ask:

  • “How have you been feeling?”
  • “Are you doing okay?”
  • “You seem stressed, is everything alright?”
  • “I’ve noticed [behavior] and I wanted to see how you were doing?”
  • “I know things have been rough for you lately. Is there anything you would like to talk about?”

When talking with students, use a calm, gentle tone and remember that it’s okay to ask hard questions. If the student is saying that they haven’t been feeling great about themselves or exhibits signs of withdrawal from peers, lack of interest in typical activities, or desperation, it’s okay to ask deeper questions like, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” or “Are you thinking about ending your life/suicide?” Asking the difficult questions about how they are doing could save the student’s life.

Asking follow up questions is also important. If they are noting that they feel like hurting themselves, you will need to know if they have the means to do so, and if they have a time or date to do it. This is a sign that the student is serious about completing their self-harm/suicide plan.

If you do not feel comfortable talking with your student, get in touch with your in-school resources. Get the school counselor involved, or make a referral to the Student Assistance Program. Remember, your job as a teacher is not to be a counselor, but to identify and refer the student where they can get help.

Tips for Conversations

During your conversation it is important to be interested and involved with that student. Making eye contact and nodding, paraphrasing, and repeating back what you believe the student is saying can be helpful ways to show that they are important. Think about how you would want to be talked to. Remember students pick up on body language and tone just like adults. Are you talking down to the student? Are you nodding in understanding as they are speaking or leaning forward to show interest? Remember that your interest and involvement could save a life.

What not to do

The biggest mistake that adults do when talking to struggling students is devaluing the student’s feelings. This is often done unintentionally in the spirit of providing hope. The most common faux-pas sound similar to:

  • “This is just a phase.”
  • “This won’t matter 10 years from now.”
  • At least you have a family that loves you, at least your parent’s divorce means you’ll get two Christmases, at least [insert anything here].”

It is tempting for us as adults to view a student’s problems as insignificant, because we know what “real” problems look like – such as living paycheck to paycheck, or failing to pay bills, or going hungry. In comparison, drama with friend groups, bullying, or self-image problems can seem silly to us. However it is important to remember that while a student’s problems may seem insignificant to you, it is significant to them, and you must treat those problems with the same seriousness that the student is taking them. To do anything less is insulting to the student and devalues their very real feelings.

Additionally, it is tempting to give advice to the student. Initially, advice should be withheld until the student has spoken their piece or unless asked. When talking with a student, try using these phrases and clarifying questions to keep a conversation going:

  • “Wow, that must have been really frustrating for you.”
  • “I can see how that would have hurt your feelings.”
  • “I imagined you felt betrayed when that happened.”
  • “That must have been really frightening to experience.”
  • “I can see how important this is to you.”
  • “It sounds like this made you very angry.”
  • “When this happened, what did you do next? What did you want to do?”
  • “How did [other person] respond to that?”
  • “What are you going to do now?”

These kinds of questions and statements allow the student to know that you are really listening and you are interested in hearing all angles of the story. When you have heard everything, you can then help prompt the student into action.

  • “When I was in school, something similar happened to me. Would you like me to tell you about it?”
  • “Can I tell you what I think about this situation?”
  • “Would you like to hear my opinion?”

A common complaint of young people is that adults are too quick to judge and tell them what to do. By offering advice in such a way to allow the student to say “No”, you are respecting their ability to choose. Also, if they do say “No”, respect that answer.

When to get someone else involved

Anytime you are concerned about a student, you may get someone else involved. You may not feel comfortable tackling this issue and that is OK – if that’s the case, get the school counselor or the Student Assistance Program involved.

However, if you are comfortable talking with your student, keep in mind the important questions to ask. If your student is distressed, be sure to ask the following:

  1. Do you sometimes feel so hopeless that you want to go to sleep and never wake up?
  2. Have you ever thought about ending your life?
  3. (if yes), Do you have a plan for how you would do it?
  4. (if yes), Do you have the means to follow through with that plan? (e.g., access to a gun or pills)
  5. (if yes), Do you have a timeframe to do it?
  6. Have you ever attempted suicide before?

If the student expresses suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide at all, or a “Yes” answer to the first two questions), then you must get the school counselor or student assistance program involved. Do not let the school day end without reaching out to the in-school resources.

Follow Up

Following up with students can be another way to show concern and help the student trust authority figures and those who could help them. This is a huge part of caring for students and creating a school environment that is safe and knowledgeable about mental illness.

Have More Questions?:

Each situation is unique, so the information on this page may not have fully answered your question. If you have more questions, reach out today to a hotline, textline, or chatline to get real-time advice from crisis workers:

1-800-273-8255 (TALK)


Text “LISTEN” to 741-741
Text “ANSWER” to 839-863
Text “WeCanHelpUs” to 303-64