Spotting the signs of mental health disorders

A sad fact of modern life is the sometimes crushing pressure felt by children and young people as they try to make sense of the world and the communities in which they live. Whether things really are worse for young people now, or whether we’re simply better at identifying emotional distress and mental ill health remains a point for debate, there can be no denying that there’s a problem and that as teachers we need to be clued up on what to look out for.

We know surprisingly little about children’s mental health at present. The 2016 survey of child mental health will tell us more (it is the first of its kind since 2004), but until then we have outdated statistics and conservative estimates. For example, around three children in every class suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Over 8,000 children under the age of ten suffer from severe depression.

So, what can we do to make sure children don’t slip through the net? Recognising the signs to look out for is a great start.

Be vigilant

Despite some discussions on social media questioning whether child mental health is deteriorating, all teachers need to be aware of the children in their care. We aren’t in the classroom simply to teach a subject or subjects. We also have to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils in our care, and that means being vigilant about the way children present in our classrooms. What changes do we notice in behaviour and the way they interact with friends and peers? How about appearance and general mood? If children are uncharacteristically introverted or irritable, take that as a sign that all isn’t well. Rapid changes in weight can be worrying signs too.

Take words seriously

All suicidal ideation needs to be taken very seriously. If a child expresses an interest in suicide (and children as young as five may express this), you must talk to the child’s pastoral head as soon as possible. In fact, any talk of self-harm of any description must be taken seriously and support put in place.

Focus on bullying

While we don’t know exact figures, it is thought that being a victim of bullying is a major contributory factor in poor mental health. If bullying, even of the relatively mild variety (such as “banter” or teasing) is tolerated in your school, it is likely that the mental health of victims will be adversely affected. Stamp it out as soon as you can and offer children safe opportunities for them to talk about any bullying they are experiencing without fear of recrimination. School-based bullying has to be eradicated.

Seek advice

If you are in any doubt about changes or behaviour you’re witnessing in one of your pupils, always seek advice. Your line manager is the best place to start, or if your school has someone assigned to promoting wellbeing in pupils, speak to him or her. There are also excellent sources of online support (see below).

Sources of advice

The Young Minds website is a great source of advice and information for young people, parents and teachers.

The Centre for Child Mental Health website carries information on training for teachers.

The Mental Health Foundation has plenty of useful information for teachers.

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition brings together leading charities for campaign purposes.


Do you have any advice on spotting the signs of mental ill health or dealing with situations from your teaching experience? Share your thoughts below!

8 thoughts on “Spotting the signs of mental health disorders

  1. What a great way to create a nation of children that can’t cope with anything and even the slightest tease or joke will not be allowed in case they are hurt! Is it any wonder that school children are being totally mollycoddled and cocooned within a risk adverse environment where possibly every second child is labelled with some sort of acronym indicating either an educational disability or behavioural problem. I think that a combination of progressive education and inept parenting has paved the way for such an artificial situation.

  2. I have mental heath problems, I did a course in supporting the teacher in the classroom Level 3. I would like to support people with mental heath,


  3. Sometimes there are serious consequences to not listening to children and young people and not noticing when they are in difficulties, Mizuno. The most extreme cases are end in suicide and shootings. No harm in being vigilant and listening to the signs that something is wrong. Might turn someone’s life around for the better.
    And some people don’t know the differences between mild teasing, where everyone is laughing together, and bullying where only the bullies and their cronies are laughing. A little education on this doesn’t do any harm either.

  4. I work for a Specialist Sen Service and we as a team are coming across more and more cases of pupils, even in the primary age group, demonstrating symptoms , whether they have additional needs or not. The increased curriculum pressures and expectations placed both on teachers and subsequently pupils from ill informed Government officials often appear to be the trigger for this. A prime example of this is when a pupils as young as 6 is deemed as failing when they can’t pass the Year 1 phonics test!

    As a result of the growing trend, We have not only found it necessary to focus our attentions on anxiety in autism over the last year, in our free Autism Twilight sessions, but have also found it necessary to place a general focus on anxiety in our round of senco network meetings this term. By giving senco’s a take away training package on anxiety that they can disseminate to their schools, we hope to spread the word!

  5. I find Mizuno’s comments offensive and misguided. I am a teacher of twenty years and a mother of an eight year old boy who has anxiety issues and often wants to ‘run away from himself’ and harm himself. He hasn’t been ‘mollycoddled’ or ‘cocooned’ and it has been due to comments like yours that we are still fighting relentlessly for support and understanding. Watching you child have a two hour meltdown, bang his head against walks and floors and want to disappear, is no ‘joke’. Understanding the mental health of children in our care at home or at school is paramount to their future wellbeing and should be a priority for all parents, carers and teachers. It doesn’t matter the cause; what matters is ensuring they are understood and they learn to be confident ‘in their own skin’. Dismissing it at a young age, as others have already said, could have disastrous consequences. I do hope Mizuno isn’t a teacher.

  6. I also felt that ‘mizunos’ comments were offensive. That sort of talk is from the Jurassic period. We have more opportunities now to be well informed through social media blogs and generally people are becoming more aware of mental health issues. I used to work in the mental health sector and I work in schools now. It is vital to be vigilant in spotting any signs so that early intervention can be put in place.

  7. In view of the ridiculous pressure certain curricular programs place on children and teachers alike , is it any wonder that deteriorating mental health has become such an issue? Let children learn at their own pace and let teachers teach in their own style.

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