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.
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.
Continuum of mental ill-health
- Good coping skills.
- Resilience in the face of challenge.
- Positive relationships.
- Experiencing a range of normal mood fluctuations in response to trigger.
- Normal sleep patterns.
- Enough energy throughout the day.
- Able to manage and problem solve challenges.
- Socially engaged.
Emerging mental health concerns
- The student’s usual behaviour may be impacted or deteriorate.
- The student may show initial changes in one of more areas of functioning.
- Signs may worsen over time, or may improve as the stressors ease.
- Coping skills may be impaired.
- Socially disconnected.
- Increased anger/irritability.
- Increased/decreased sleep.
- Increased/decreased appetite.
- Changes to mood – extreme happiness, sadness, anger, worry.
- May be a diagnosable disorder.
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.
- explain that mental health problems are common
- explain that early help means a better recovery.
- explain that you'd like to help
- involve other relevant people
- if they do not want to talk to you, suggest appropriate alternatives.
- explain that with the right support things can improve.
Be a good role model
- 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
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.
- Information on setting up sessions for headspace counselling for secondary students:
This page has been developed by 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.