How can I initiate mental health conversations with students and their families in a culturally sensitive way?

7 min read
December 7, 2022

A student’s mental health is essential to their overall well-being and success in and out of school. Mental health and brain functioning can have a direct impact on learning and behavior, and young people who are able to receive mental health services and additional social-emotional programming or support are better prepared to thrive. These interventions should come sooner rather than later because the earlier they receive treatment, the better the outcomes in lessening the impact of mental health symptoms in the short and long term. 

Talking to students and their families about their mental health can be a great way to get to know your student’s families better, while also advocating for your student’s well-being. It’s critical that educators are able to address the individual needs of all students in a culturally competent and sensitive way. 

Simply put, teachers have the responsibility to meet the mental health needs of students from a variety of different backgrounds and cultures. Different cultures may have different beliefs about mental health and mental illness. This reality can affect different things like awareness of symptoms, the likelihood to seek medical treatment, and the likelihood for students and families to have discussions about mental health with one another. 

What is cross-cultural competence?

Cross-cultural competence describes someone’s ability to not only understand people from different cultural backgrounds but also one’s ability to effectively engage with them. This shouldn’t be specific to one background– cross-cultural competence means that someone can do this amongst different cultures, rather than just one particular culture. As a cross-cultural educator, you will be able to help your students effectively deal with their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, especially those which get in the way of their learning or overall quality of life. You can also address students of diverse backgrounds who are feeling socially isolated. Social connectedness has been proven to lower rates of anxiety and depression while also increasing self-esteem and empathy among teens. 

How to educate yourself on different cultures?

The internet can be a great place to access information and resources to better educate yourself on how different cultures discuss and deal with mental health issues.

Here are some great resources to start with: 

Being educated about your student’s culture can be a great way to show them that you care about them and that you want to get to know them on a personal level. Additionally, it shows them that you want to see them succeed and thrive in all aspects of their lives.

You can keep these tips in mind when increasing your levels of cultural competence:

  • Practice a positive attitude 
  • Be sensitive to what others may be going through
  • Be flexible with your ideas
  • Respect other people’s points of view
  • Practice openness by accepting differences
  • See your students and yourself as both able and willing to learn from one another

How can you initiate mental health conversations between students and families?

It may be difficult to start conversations between teens and their families, especially their parents or guardians. However, as you might already know, teaching often necessitates creativity. One way you can engage students and their families is to assign a project which allows students to talk about mental health with their family members, in a way that is focused on the facts of mental illness. Ending mental health stigma can start with giving people accurate information surrounding mental health. In fact, having a better fact-based understanding of mental illnesses and their treatments can take away the fear and confusion that people may have towards people with mental illnesses or those who struggle with mental health challenges.

In projects that deal with potentially culturally sensitive and emotionally sensitive topics like mental health, the wording of questions and instructions is important and teachers should pay particular attention to these nuances. Here are some websites where you can create handouts and/or assignments that cover the basics surrounding mental health: 

In order to supplement these discussions at home, you can also engage with the administration at your school to see if you can implement culturally sensitive mental health training in your school. If you notice that some students are particularly vocal and interested in issues of diversity, inclusion, and mental health, you could ask them to act as student ambassadors and help inform and educate their peers on the topic. When information is delivered to teens by their peers, there is a sense of relatability that helps promote learning and community. 

Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.

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