Recognising and supporting pupils with signs of depression

How do you know if a pupil is experiencing low mood or showing symptoms of depression? Kelly Hannaghan describes why the language we use is key when talking to pupils who may be struggling with mental health issues

Author details

Kelly Hannaghan is a wellbeing consultant, public speaker and writer, passionately promoting positive mental health and wellbeing of all stakeholders in education. You can find Kelly on...

If we take a deep dive into the DfE findings from the Children’s and Young Peoples report, we can see the possible wide and varied impact the pandemic has had on the emotional experiences of children and young people (CYP). 

The report highlights that loneliness has been a challenge for some CYP, although some have reported benefits for their mental health. Some evidence suggests that young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have experienced a higher rate of mental health and wellbeing concerns, though other studies have not found this to be the case.

Parents have reported that CYP with SEND have been negatively affected by the pandemic, but measures of emotional and behavioural difficulties do not show a widening gap with their peers.

We can see we need to support a wide plethora of experiences of this pandemic.

Responding to wellbeing needs

Currently educators are navigating the new landscapes of education, while gently exploring the emotional impact that Covid-19 has had on their pupil’s wellbeing and learning.

To understand these needs we need to be aware of warning signs and symptoms of decreasing mental health and wellbeing. These are questions to reflect on when thinking about the approach to mental health in your setting.

  • Do staff receive regular high-quality mental health training?
  • Do teachers know how and who to signpost concerns to regarding pupil mental health?
  • Does your school have a trained counsellor onsite, or skilled staff within a pastoral team, who can effectively respond to the emotional health needs of pupils?
  • Do you undertake regular wellbeing evaluations for pupils, and do you act on data collected?
  • Do you involve parents/carers in understanding children and young people’s mental health?
  • Do you teach children and young people about mental health and wellbeing?

It is vital that school staff feel equipped and empowered to respond effectively to the emotional health needs of pupils and know where to get help if needed.

Low mood or depression?

Most lifelong mental health issues begin in childhood. Releasing the stigma around talking about mental health and feelings early on can help CYP cope better with life’s challenges.

When pupils are not feeling themselves, it can be hard to differentiate between just feeling a bit low or depression. 

Low mood can be described as a short period of feeling tired, frustrated, or having low self-esteem. Remedies such as getting more sleep, exercising, or talking problems through can help to alleviate feelings of low mood.

It is when symptoms stay around for longer periods of time that there may be a risk of depression developing.

Possible signs and symptoms of depression

Depression affects different people in different ways. Symptoms can include:

  • not wanting to do things that you previously enjoyed
  • avoiding friends or social situations
  • sleeping more or less than normal
  • eating more or less than normal
  • feeling irritable, upset, miserable or lonely
  • being self-critical
  • feeling hopeless
  • maybe wanting to self-harm
  • feeling tired and not having any energy.

The language we use is key

There’s never been a more important time to join up strategic thinking around emotional wellbeing. Having a whole school approach to reach everyone across the school community, while at the same time ensuring individual needs are met, is vital.

Active listening and empathic responding are key components in helping CYP feel seen and heard. Try these suggested language scripts.

  • 'I can see you are having a challenging time.'
  • 'Do you know how long you have been feeling like this?'
  • 'What do you need to feel better?'
  • 'I wonder if there is anything we can do to help you manage these feelings?'
  • 'You have been here before and you have got through this.'
  • 'I am here to listen and to understand.'
  • 'What may have helped you in the past?'
  • 'Some of these feelings may be a normal reaction to an unnormal situation.'
  • 'If you had the power to change one thing, what would that be?'
  • 'Talking things through can sometimes help.'
  • 'What would feeling better look like for you?'

The most important message here is to let a child explore their feelings at their own pace and ensure they feel they are in a safe space to have these delicate conversations. Listen fully and pass on any safeguarding concerns for the pupil to your designated safeguarding officers.

Relationships at the heart of education

Trust and empathy are key ingredients in having sensitive conversations. Understanding the impact of our words can also play a huge part in helping children feel comfortable. The language we use has incredible power in re-establishing safe relationships.  

If you look after the wellbeing of a pupil, it takes care of the learning. I know this to be true through my work as a mental health and wellbeing consultant at The Education People.

I have supported many schools with strategies to grow positive cultures in education and know first-hand that placing an emphasis on wellbeing increases the positive outcomes for pupils and their families.

People often ask me how wellbeing can be measured. My reply is simple; you only have to walk into an environment to sense if the people there are happy and engaged.

A key question to ask yourself is 'would your younger self thrive in your school community?'

A wellbeing curriculum for all

For schools to successfully support the wellbeing and mental health needs of pupils, it is vital that they have the right resources and materials to aid their delivery of purposeful wellbeing intervention, along with early help and preventative measures.

Here are some of my go to resources.

The Kent Resilience Hub: a pool of resources and support to help everyone cope better with the pressures of everyday life. The website features different sections aimed at supporting young people, parents and carers, and schools and communities to understand emotional wellbeing and resilience.

MoodSpark provides a place for young people to learn how to look after their emotional and mental health and find ways to help them bounce back when life gets tough.

Wellbeing buddies primary resource: this is a free resource for primary aged pupils. You can sign up at The Education People to receive this digital resource.

Bringing it all together

Children and young people need to feel safe and secure to discuss how they are feeling. Consistency with a shared language approach is key. Investing time and funding into high quality resources, along with creating a directory of resources and conversation starters that every member of staff has access to, can help build knowledge. 

Supporting CYP to reframe their thinking and to normalise thoughts can be a great starting point in providing the social scaffolding to respond to any delicate needs.

Involving parents where appropriate and developing purposeful interventions and learning for mental health and wellbeing can be a preventative measure for CYP developing complex emotional health issues such as depression.


Last Updated: 
21 Oct 2021