Early intervention in youth mental health

This resource is a practical guide to early intervention in youth mental health. It's designed for teachers, school staff and other staff who work with students in a school setting.

Early intervention guide

This guide can:

  • help you identify early warning signs and symptoms
  • provide guidance on key actions you may take
  • explain what support is available.

Download the Youth Mental Health - Early Intervention Guide (pdf - 184.62kb).

How early intervention can help you help your students

Intervening early, with appropriate treatment, can reduce the risk of mental health symptoms worsening.

Important components of intervening early are:

  • identifying the problem at the earliest possible stage
  • preventing the problem worsening or progressing to a more severe form of illness
  • reducing the impact on a student’s social and academic outcomes across school, work, relationships and family
  • ensuring the student has access to the most appropriate form of support or treatment.

If we learn to identify common signs of mental ill-health early, we can use low-intensity, simpler interventions such as:

  • lifestyle interventions
  • skill building
  • mood monitoring
  • problem solving
  • supporting students to make behavioural changes with diet, sleep, routine and structure.

Helping your students

Mental health and mental ill-health sit on a continuum and are influenced by many environmental, emotional and social factors.

We are all on a continuum with our mental health and early intervention strategies can be used to improve and look after our emotional wellbeing.

If we support students with emerging mental health concerns before they become disorders, we are likely to improve their social and academic outcomes and their engagement in daily life.

The Mental Health Continuum   

It is helpful to view mental health and mental ill-health as existing at opposite ends along a continuum of mental health (Be You). Our position along the continuum is influenced by social, emotional and environmental factors.

Students and adults constantly move along the continuum as we face challenges and situations in everyday life that test our capacity to cope and alter our mental health.

Most students will typically sit at the end of the continuum of positive mental health and going okay: they can face adversity and have the resilience to cope with daily stressors.

Early intervention strategies can be used to improve and look after our emotional wellbeing. The promotion of help-seeking messages and awareness of the strategies that foster positive mental health is fundamental to early intervention and prevention of future mental health difficulties.

Recognising where students are positioned along the continuum of mental health and engaging them in a conversation to understand the factors that are contributing to their current mental health and wellbeing is also consistent with the SAFEMinds early intervention approach of NIP it in the bud! (Notice, Inquire, Plan).

If we support students with emerging mental health concerns before they become disorders, we are likely to improve their social and academic outcomes and their engagement in daily life.


If our mental health and wellbeing is we are:

  • in a state of optimal functioning
  • engaged with our environment
  • connected to our community.

In a school setting this is a child who:

  • is engaged in learning
  • has good coping strategies
  • is connected socially
  • has the ability to problem-solve
  • can maintain their energy and participation throughout the day.

Going okay

When our mental health and wellbeing is going okay, we are:

  • able to complete our daily activities such as work and study
  • experiencing positive mental health with the absence of frequent or significant distress.

In a school setting this is a child who:

  • maintains regular attendance
  • approaches their learning with curiosity
  • is socially connected
  • experiences small observable changes in behaviour/emotions and/or social connection.

Going through a tough time

At the point in the continuum of emerging mental health concerns we are:

  • experiencing difficulties maintaining daily activities
  • experiencing noticeable changes in one of the domains of social, emotional and/or environment factors, evidenced by changes to behaviour, emotions and/or social connections.

In a school setting this is a student who:

  • has come to the attention of an educator and/or a member of the wellbeing team
  • is experiencing mild disruptions to their ability to engage in learning, behaviour, and social connections
  • experiences periods of disruption and impact to their behaviour, emotions and/or social connections.

Severely impacting everyday activities

At the far end of the continuum where our mental health and wellbeing is severely impacting we are:

  • experiencing thoughts and emotions that are distressing
  • demonstrating behaviours out of the norm for that student
  • experiencing persistent negative emotions
  • requiring additional support to alleviate the distress experienced.

In a school setting this is a student who:

  • may be unable to maintain regular attendance
  • is socially disengaged
  • is not engaged in learning
  • has identifiable emotional distress.

Key behaviours

Teachers and school staff play a crucial role in identifying signs of mental health issues, providing early support, and referring to health services.

Key behaviours that will help you perform this role include:

Be clear about your goal
  • You are not a 'therapist' or 'expert'
  • reduce stigma surrounding mental health and substance use issues
  • raise awareness about mental health and substance use issues
  • promote help-seeking and assisting students to access support early
  • address student's concerns about confidentiality
  • support students to speak with their family or carers about the concerns.


  • look for early warning signs of problems (see early intervention guide).


  • be approachable
  • openly talk about mental health
  • ask open-ended questions about how the student has been feeling
  • continue to ask if you notice changes worsening.


  • avoid being critical or judgemental
  • avoid confrontation.
Act early

Provide information:    

  • explain that mental health problems are common
  • explain that early help means a better recovery.

Provide support:    

  • explain that you'd like to help
  • involve other relevant people
  • if they do not want to talk to you, suggest appropriate alternatives.

Provide hope:    

  • explain that with the right support things can improve.
Be a good role model

Reduce stigma:    

  • challenge negative stereotypes and misconceptions
  • use appropriate language
  • promote respectful behaviour.

Look after yourself:    

  • know your limits
  • practice self-care.

Promote good mental health:    

  • live by example
  • get support if you need it.

Support services in schools

There are a range of health and wellbeing supports within the school system which you can reach out to (please check for the availability of a particular service for your school).

The following services are available for both primary and secondary schools:

  • Student support services is made up of a broad range of professionals including psychologists, speech pathologists and social workers. They form an integrated health and wellbeing team, supporting schools across local area networks. Student Support Services provide a range of supports, including group-based and individual supports for students, capability building for school staff and the provision of specialised services.
  • School chaplains (under the National School Chaplaincy Program) support the emotional wellbeing of students by providing pastoral care services and strategies that support the emotional wellbeing of the broader school community.

Primary school-specific services

  • Primary welfare officers promote a whole school approach to health and wellbeing within the school community and work in collaboration with students and parents and carers, school staff including principals, teachers, aides, specialist staff, nurses and student support services officers and with broader community agencies.
  • Primary school nurses promote child health and wellbeing and assist in the early identification of children with potential health related difficulties. They also provide students with an opportunity to have a health assessment, information and advice about healthy behaviours and linking students and families to community based health and wellbeing services.

Secondary school-specific services

  • Student welfare coordinators help students handle issues such as truancy, bullying, drug use and depression. Student welfare coordinators work with other welfare professionals and agencies to address student needs.
  • Doctors in secondary schools are General Practitioners who provide medical advice and health care to those students most in need. The Doctors in Secondary Schools program is currently in place at 100 schools across Victoria.
  • headspace counselling for secondary students involves face-to-face and telephone counselling services. Students access the service via a referral made by a central contact person within their school.
  • Mental health practitioners in secondary schools. By 2022, every government secondary school campus will receive between one and five days per week of support from a suitably qualified mental health practitioner.

Supports in the community

If a student needs support outside of those provided in schools, there are a range of community-based services and resources.


The following resources may also be useful:

Psychoeducation and guided self-help interventions

  • headspace has a large suite of psychoeducation resources. You can download the materials or spend time exploring them with young people
  • The Centre of Clinical Interventions (CCI) has a range of guided self-help workbooks that you can support young people to work through
  • beyondblue has an extensive range of evidence-based psychoeducational material that you can explore with young people
  • Substance use assessment and treatment information aimed specifically at young people can be found on headspace resource centre
  • Orygen –  resources aimed at the mental health workforce to support young people with a variety of different problems
  • Orygen – clinical practice points aimed at the mental health workforce to support young people in a variety of different themes.

Making a referral

Before making a referral you first need to discuss the referral with the young person, and their family if they are not deemed a mature minor, and gain their consent.

When contacting mental health services to make a referral it is likely that you will be asked a lot of questions about the student, their situation and your concerns.

It can be helpful to prepare for this phone call by collating all your information and writing down some of the following information:

  • student’s personal details such as age, residential suburb, school information
  • your main concerns about the student. How long have these problems been present? How have the problems affected their coping at school and home? Has the student had these experiences before?
  • the student’s individual context i.e. possible risk and protective factors particular to the student
  • details of family history, if applicable.

Referral forms

This page has been developed in partnership with Orygen Youth Mental Health.


This information is provided for general educational and information purposes only. It is current as at the date of publication and is intended to be relevant for all Australian states and territories (unless stated otherwise) and may not be applicable in other jurisdictions.

Any diagnosis and/or treatment decisions in respect of an individual patient should be made based on your professional investigations and opinions in the context of the clinical circumstances of the patient.

To the extent permitted by law, Orygen, will not be liable for any loss or damage arising from your use of or reliance on this information. You rely on your own professional skill and judgement in conducting your own health care practice.

Orygen does not endorse or recommend any products, treatments or services referred to in this information.