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How to talk about mental health at university or school

As a student, when you're ill, you need support. With physical health, you normally get what you need. But it doesn't always work for mental health. Here's how to have a conversation about your mental wellbeing and get support.

Studying while ill is a real challenge.

Whether you've got a sports injury or a mental health problem; what you need when ill is to be able to tell someone about your illness and get the support you need.

With physical illness, this can usually be done. You talk about what is wrong with you and you usually get the support you need.

For people who have  a mental health challenge, the outcome is far less positive. With mental health:

  • pupils feel unable to access the support they need for mental health

  • more students are dropping out of university in their first year, due to mental health, than ever before

  • yet around a third of us will have a mental health challenge at some point in life

  • more working days are lost to mental health than anything else. 

  • it's not just bad for the individual either - teachers and tutors see lost productivity, absence, more complaints and less engaged staff or students.

This is wrong on every level.  And for everyone.  And we need to put it right.

Let's first look at why it goes wrong, then we can see what we can do about it.

There are two sides to a conversation about mental health - the person with the mental health challenge, and the person they need support from - a teacher, university tutor, friend or fellow student. Let's have a look at this from the perspective of the person listening.

Picture of two confused bosses

Think about a conversation about physical health. When we are ill we generally talk about:

#1 - Label: what's wrong with us ("I have . . . the flu, a broken leg, an injury, an allergy")

#2 - Story: how we got or found the illness ("I caught it from...", "I fell down a step")

#3 - Impact: how it affects us ("I'm so weak I can't even get up", "I can't walk", "It's painful to use my hands", "I need an operation").

Image of one person talking to another and a flowchart of Label, Story and Impact

Naturally we use the same framework for mental health.  Label. Story. Impact.

But. Let's look at this from the perspective of the listener.

Labels are numerous and complex - autism, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bereavement, chronic stress, adhd, dyslexia, depression, dyspraxia, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and many more conditions.  Each having a range of severity; with 'high-functioning' on the one hand (where the sufferer is able to function effectively, despite the condition) to totally debilitating or even needing constant care on the other.

The Story associated with the condition is often overwhelmingly negative and emotional.  Mine involves the death of a child, which led to my PTSD.  At the start of my talk ("Mentally Healthy Conversations") I invite my audience to play the role of my boss, teacher, friend, colleague or tutor.  And then I hit them with my Story.  The draining emotion of my story conveys the point well - this is not a good way to get support for mental health.  It drains the listener.

The Impact is also both emotional and complex.  My PTSD leads to my hyper-vigilant mind having flashbacks to the death of my son and flashforwards to new potential tragedies. This raises the need for complex explanations about the impact of trauma on the way our brains process bad experiences. 

"Label, Story and Impact don't work for mental health. If we're going to get support, rather than stigma, we need to find a new way of talking about our mental wellbeing."

So how do we turn this around?

As I discovered in my own journey through my mental health challenge, better outcomes are achieved by using a different framework to discuss mental health.  The best framework is one that puts the listener into a place where they feel competent and able to help.  And I use this framework in my coaching work with people who are looking to manage their mental health challenges.  This framework produces better outcomes.

Here are my tips for getting a better outcome.

Tip #1 - tell them what a challenging day looks like

First, tell them what triggers the condition to make your day more challenging? What, in your daily environment, makes it worse for you? What situations make you have a bad day? Your teacher, tutor, friend or colleague can't help cure your illness; but they can help you avoid your triggers and the things that happen to make your day more challenging. The better the listener's understanding of what happens to you on a difficult day, the more they can see how to help you avoid those unhelpful environments. This almost immediately moves the conversation into positive, solution-focused, territory.

When I need support, I don't have to tell the Story of my son's death. Or of the impact of this on me in the form of traumatic flashbacks to his death, and flashforwards to other tragedies.  Instead I talk about what a difficult day looks like.  

In a nutshell, my condition is worse on days when:

  • I have lots of things going on around me at the same time with interruptions, diversions and chaos - this makes my hyper-vigilant post traumatic brain constantly focus on the risk of something tragic happening

  • I have to stay away from home - which makes my hyper-vigilant brain anticipate a tragic outcome for my family

  • things are unclear or uncertain - which makes my hyper-vigilant brain anticipate a tragic outcome for me.

When I've coached people, I've found that their Triggers can be all sorts of day-to-day things - like how they are talked to, how they are given instructions, how they get feedback, their studying environment (noisy, cold, too hot, too quiet, uncomfortable), what and when they eat, what and when they drink, their exercise routine (or not having one), the music they listen to, the people they socialise with or interact with and so on.

Tip #2 - Discuss what a good day looks like

You feel better in the right positive environment for you. This might be totally different to the sort of environment that someone else might feel comfortable in. Through mindful reflection you can raise your awareness of the sort of environment that you feel more comfortable in. Sometimes (but not always) it's the opposite of a difficult environment.

For me I am far better able to manage my condition when I have the following environment:

  • Freedom to plan my own day: so I can do things calmly, one thing at a time, without unnecessary interruptions, diversions or chaos. This calms my hyper-vigilant mind

  • The ability to commute to work (which for me is a significant and expensive commute) and not stay away from home as much as possible.

  • To have colleagues who are honest and straight-talking with me as much as possible, so there are no-surprises.

Through Evenhood I've worked with individuals who have a range of easy-to-provide Resilient Resources. Anything from how instructions are given, how feedback is delivered, when they take breaks, what sort of lighting they sit under, the noise of their working environment, when they eat, what the balance is like between desk-based work and meeting-focused work, the degree of autonomy they are given and so on. Lots of small adjustments that can make the world of difference to wellbeing.

Tip #3 - Discuss your Talents & Abilities - the things you can do that help you feel purposeful, successful and engaged

Much more often than not this next point is completely forgotten or overlooked;  but the truth of the matter is that people with mental wellness challenges often have certain enhanced talents and abilities.  We often see:

  • increased interpersonal empathy with other people which can enhance social skills

  • the ability to identify and mitigate risk (one of mine - a great by-product of PTSD!) - which is useful for spotting flaws and working out solutions

  • increased creativity - which is useful for idea-development, producing novel solutions, design and the arts

  • tenacity and the ability to identify flaws - which is useful for programming, software development

  • increased logical thinking and judgement.

You'll find that having a wellbeing conversation like this is a more effective way of helping the person you are talking to find ways of supporting you.

All the best on your journey and if I can help your situation in any way please drop me a line on or explore more on

I wish you well — Jonathan Phelan

About Jonathan Phelan

Jonathan is the author of “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation” which tells the story of how Jonathan learned to manage the challenge of a mental health condition following a child bereavement. The book helps the reader discover how to have mentally healthy conversations, which are more likely to result in support, rather than stigma. It also promotes the benefits of workplaces, universities and schools nurturing a culture in which it is normal for people to talk about their mental health and to offer mutual support for wellbeing and resilience.

Jonathan has held a senior leadership position in a large financial services organisation since 2004, with a long-term career in law, law enforcement and consumer protection. When he went through the trauma of a child bereavement he gained an insight into the obstacles people face when they have mental wellbeing challenges. More importantly he learned how to overcome those obstacles by improving the way we talk about our wellbeing and resilience.

Through his talks, workshops and book Jonathan shares his personal story. Using the drama of how mental health has been portrayed in film, and his own particular take on how our brains process information, Jonathan guides the listener to discover more effective ways to talk about mental wellbeing. Jonathan also promotes the concept of mutual support for wellbeing; based on the belief that we should all aim to make it normal for people to talk about their mental wellbeing, just as we are already willing to talk about physical wellbeing.

The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation is available on Amazon or from the Evenhood website.

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