In your line of work, you’re used to parents calling you with concerns about their child’s academic performance, behavior, or friend issues. Whether they’re significant issues or unfounded concerns, you’re an expert when it comes to helping parents figure out the best course of action. But when a parent comes to you with concerns about the possibility that their child might be struggling with a mental illness, you may feel at a loss for what to do. After all, you’re experienced in working with children and knowing the best methods to facilitate learning but you probably didn’t cover how to help with mental illnesses in your training. That’s what a therapist is supposed to do, right?
Ultimately, a psychotherapist will be the best person to help a child struggling with a mental illness. Yet as an educator, you are often the first line of defense when it comes to connecting parents with mental health resources. Your students’ parents likely see you as a source of expertise and support and as a trusted person who can help. While this may leave you feeling the weight of responsibility, there is no need to feel overwhelmed. Just use this basic three step approach to confidently guide your student’s parents towards accessing the resources they need.
Step One: Gather Information
When a parent comes to you with concerns about their child having a mental illness, they are inviting you into the process of figuring out the best way to help their child. Listen to their concerns and ask questions to demonstrate that you are invested in helping them. Ask for details: What symptoms have they noticed? How long has this been happening? Have they scheduled a professional consultation? etc. By simply listening and asking these questions, you are sending the implicit message that you care about their concerns. If you have noticed behaviors in the classroom similar to what the parents are describing, let them know. Your observations are valuable information that can contribute to a potential diagnosis by a mental health professional and could confirm their suspicions that their child is struggling with something.
Step Two: Establish Communication with the School Counselor
Your next step is to notify either the school’s counselor or social worker. If your school doesn’t have a school counselor or social worker, refer the parents to a mental health professional in your community. Check with your school’s administrators to see if they maintain a referral list of mental health professionals in the area.
Ideally, you’d like to schedule an appointment that you, the parents, and the school counselor can attend together. Think of your role as the connector in the process of helping the parents address the issue. You don’t have to worry about diagnosing and/or treating the student. Instead, you can help facilitate the connections they need to move the process forward, and be a source of support for the family.
The purpose of the meeting is to share with the school counselor what the parents shared with you, and to share your own observations. Since your school counselor has experience with the way a potential mental illness diagnosis can affect a student’s experience both inside and outside the classroom, he or she can provide insight for both you and the parents about what to expect in the next few weeks and/or months. Your school counselor can then recommend the next steps which may include a consultation with a mental health professional and classroom accommodations for the child.
Step Three: Check in Regularly with the Student, the School Counselor, and the Parents
Even though you’ve “passed the baton” to the school counselor, it’s important to check in regularly with the student, his or her parents, and the school counselor. Checking in serves two purposes. It demonstrates your commitment to helping in whatever way you can; and it helps you stay current on the progress of the child’s treatment so that you know how to best help. In the coming weeks and months, you will also be able to share your observations with the parents to help inform the treatment process.
When a parent comes to you with concerns about their child’s mental health, you don’t have to immediately feel overwhelmed and under-equipped. Simply follow this basic plan to guide you through the process and you will feel empowered in your role as an educator and important link in your student’s treatment process.