How to train teachers in student mental health

Teachers are at the front line of student mental health, they need some training and support.
Mental health
The de facto role of teacher as mental health practitioner needs to be acknowledged with support.

Society is recognising the importance of teachers being trained in the area of student mental health. Training in this area is being mandated by many education and government agencies. Despite this, the number of teachers formally trained in this area is less than twenty percent. However, we must do better not just in the percentage of teachers trained; we have to do better in the quality of training given.

The importance of building a fence
Many current programs dealing with student mental health limit themselves to ‘first aid’. This training is important, but it is also inadequate. Teachers need to do more than offer first aid. We need to offer preventative aid - ways to obviate first aid. We need programs that build a fence at the top of the mental health cliff, as well as programs to help those that lie damaged at the bottom of the cliff.

We need to build a wellbeing fence at the top of the cliff.

It is important that we learn the skills needed to help those that have ‘fallen’ down the mental health cliff. However, by itself, these skills are not enough. We also need pro-active, preventative and even redemptive programs that prevent a fall in the first place.

The growing need for teacher training in student mental health
Teaching mental health triage and first responder skills is important. This is all the more so given the rising incidence of poor mental health in children. Figures vary, but during these COVID times, it has been suggested that one in four secondary students have mental health issues and one in seven primary school students. There has also been a 30 percent increase in youth suicides over the last few years. These are appalling statistics.

However, suicide is but one outcome of a range of mental disorders afflicting children of school age. There are about 300 mental disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Most of these disorders fall into one of seven groups.

  • Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Personality disorders.
  • Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Substance abuse disorders.

Training teachers to cope with each of these groups of disorders is important. However, the current courses on offer are usually very expensive and require a significant block of time to complete. Both these factors contribute to the limited number of teachers being trained in this area.

An affordable and comprehensive training solution
Training solutions can be found in wellbeing programs such as that created by Truwell. What Truwell offers is a highly affordable training course for teachers in how to foster mental health in students. Furthermore, the need for extensive blocks of training time is removed, as well as the need for expensive trainers.

The Truwell Teacher Training Course in Student Mental Health:

  • is comprehensive, informed and infused with expert advice,
  • presents its material in a digital format that can be accessed using most platforms including mobile phones,
  • allows teachers to undertake training in a self-paced manner and at a time of their own choosing,
  • provides interactive and personalised feedback,
  • is practical – a feature helped by the course being written by teachers for teachers,
  • is extensive in that it provides 50 hours of professional development in the area of youth mental health.

For further details, go to:

Looking after teachers so that they can look after students
A visit to the Truwell website suggests another imperative, which is the need to look after the mental health of teachers and support staff. Schools will not have their students enjoying good mental health if they don’t have their teachers enjoying good mental health.

It is important that mental health programs not be limited to students. They need to be offered to the entire school community, including the executive, teachers and support staff. Parents too, need to be in partnership with the school in promoting good mental health.

This is what makes holistic and all-encompassing programs such as Truwell so attractive. It offers a ‘one-stop-shop’ that empowers school leaders to enrich the wellbeing of their entire school community.

Giving teachers and students a voice
Any good mental health program needs not only to present expert advice, they need to seek relevant opinion. This is an astonishing blind spot in many mental health programs - they don’t ask their teachers and students for ideas on how their school might help them flourish. As a result, the teacher and student ‘voice’ goes missing. At Truwell, we believe in the importance of collecting advice and ideas from both teachers and students on how their mental wellbeing might be enriched by their school.

The three elements of a training program on student mental health
Any teacher training program in student mental health needs to encompass three elements:

  • WHY is mental wellbeing important in the young?
  • WHAT can teachers do if mental health problems arise?
  • HOW can teachers promote mental health in their students?

Starting with ‘why’ is important because it explains the reasons teachers need to be informed in the area of youth mental health. With ever more obligations being required of teachers, the arrival of yet another is unlikely to be received well unless there is an understanding of its importance and an appreciation of its need.

Adding the ‘what’ is important because it adds the practical to the theoretical and solutions to the problems. There are mental health first aid skills that can be learnt by teachers. Acquiring these skills is now no longer being seen as optional for any teacher that wishes to be considered properly and professionally trained.

Showing ‘how’ teachers can promote mental health is a vital feature of an effective teacher training program on student mental health. Therefore, it is strange that this element is often missing in many wellbeing programs.

The wellbeing courses teachers want for their students
What teachers are signalling is their need for engaging, easily delivered, personalised and interactive programs that their students can use to boost wellbeing. These programs need to be customisable and they need to deal with relevant issues such as:

  • Improving personal wellbeing
  • Surviving pandemics
  • Dealing with bullies and bullying
  • Ensuring a good digital footprint
  • Encouraging digital wellbeing
  • Handling stress
  • Increasing resilience
  • Protecting self-esteem
  • Managing alcohol and other recreational drugs
  • Managing diet and exercise
  • Managing anger and assertiveness
  • Getting on well with others
  • Protecting the inner self
  • Sexual consent
  • Vaping (

The student of school age has never lived in a better age or a worse age. Even allowing for growing obesity, more sedentary recreational habits and high calorific diets, a review of literature will typically reveal we are living longer and that medical interventions are keeping us healthier. The world is no longer hostage to diseases such as smallpox or the Black Death.

On the other hand, the world has not surrendered its habit of war, environmental despoilation, resource disparity, maltreatment of women, sex trafficking, homophobia and rejection of those from different cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Neither has it conquered delinquent parenting, domestic violence, substance abuse, high-stress lifestyles, pandemics and the myriad of other things that can impact on the wellbeing of students in our schools.

For this reason, ALL teachers should be trained in how to nurture mental health in their students. However, we must do more than train our teachers, we must also equip them. We must give them not just the training, but the courses they can use with their students to improve their mental health. We must recognise our teachers are already overloaded and may be suffering stress in their own lives.

Therefore, a holistic wellbeing program is needed that embraces the entire school community.

For those wanting to explore such a program, go to: [email protected]

Dr Hawkes will be presenting at the Wellbeing for Future Focused Schools, National Education Summit Melbourne on 12 & 13 October 2021