National Runaway Safeline

How Teachers Can Deal With Youth Struggling With Depression and Mental Health Issues

We have recently been identifying mental health concerns in youth and sharing steps that a young person can take if s/he become concerned about him/herself or a friend. And in those posts, we have encouraged a young person to reach out to a trusted adult for support or guidance such as teachers.

How Teachers Can Deal With Youth Struggling With Depression | National Runaway Safeline
Image courtesy of Avery (Flickr Creative Commons)

But what if a youth approaches a teacher?

What are some steps that a teacher can take in being that safe person for the youth?

Trying to help a youth when one doesn’t feel ready or quite capable can be harmful for both youth and teacher. However, there are ways to help the youth identify another person they can talk to.

So the first step and probably the most important is being able to identify potential factors or behaviors that may indicate a youth is experiencing a mental health concern or crisis. This might look like:

  • Extreme sadness or withdrawal for more than 2 weeks
  • Self-injury or plans to self-harm
  • Overwhelming feelings of fear that are sometimes accompanied by physical symptoms such as a racing heart or rapid, shallow breathing
  • A desire to hurt others
  • Changes in eating habits such as not eating, over-eating, vomiting or use of laxatives
  • Intense worries that hinder daily activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sudden use of substances
  • Drastic mood swings

However, these are only a few symptoms. If there is a drastic change in a young person, it may be time to try reaching out to other school officials (school counselor, administration, nurse) or the youth’s parents for a consultation.

So what if a youth takes that first step to share their concerns?

Well, most importantly, one can listen. That might be all s/he need in the moment, is someone who is going to listen and really hear what s/he is saying. Someone who isn’t going to pass judgement or tell the young person how to respond.

And while teachers want to protect or help students, remember that some things can’t be kept ‘secret’ so be open about these things with them; things such as child abuse or harm to self/others. By being transparent with youth, teachers are giving him/her the power to decide if s/he want to keep talking. If these are issues that the youth wants to discuss, the teacher could explain the process or finding someone who can explain it. (1-800-RUNAWAY is available to participate in a teleconference too.) Because there is the potential that if a teacher is not completely transparent with a youth, trust may be lost. This experience may also damage the trust that youth are building with other adults.

After listening to the youth and hearing what s/he want to say:

  • Reach out to others such as someone at the school or the parents.
  • Ask the youth if it’s okay.
  • Explain to the school or parents the reason for reaching out; it may be to consult for guidance or to include others into the conversation.
  • Respect the answer the youth gives.

The youth might feel that having a teacher included in the conversation can make it easier talking to parents. And while this may not feel right at the time, it is what the youth wants and that’s what’s important. Again, unless it’s child abuse or harm to self/others, confidentiality is crucial.

If a youth wants to talk but a teacher is not able to provide them with the support or guidance s/he is looking for, that’s fine.

Being honest with the student but offering to help him/her identify someone else is a way to establish healthy boundaries. Teachers are very busy people and sometimes, they aren’t able to stretch themselves any further. A teacher being able to identify limitations and understand them helps preventing harm to the youth.

A teacher can sit down with a youth to determine a different school staff member the youth might be comfortable with, such as; another teacher, a coach or someone in the guidance office. A teacher can show concern and support by helping a youth connect with a different caring adult. 

You can also call us here at the National Runaway Safeline.

NRS’ mission is to keep America’s runaway, homeless and at-risk youth safe and off the streets; that means providing support and resources to others who share a similar vision. NRS is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-RUNAWAY (786-2929) or check out the website for other resources such as the Runaway Prevention Curriculum, forum, or other blog postings. Because NRS is here to listen, here to help.


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