Talking With Youth About Mental Health

We are so lucky to have Kate Endries, MSW, licensed social worker and BGCA Health & Wellness Director back on the blog! Today she’s bringing first in a three-part special series about Kids & Mental Health in partnership with our friends at On Our Sleeves: The Movement for Children’s Mental Health for Mental Health Awareness Month.

Supporting the mental health of kids and teens is more important than ever. With the ever-changing environment of the pandemic, to civil unrest and racial inequality, to the inequities some families face or even just growing up – kids are facing a mountain of potential barriers to positive mental health. 

Mental health and wellness are just as important to all of us as our physical health. About 1 in 5 children experiences an impairing mental health disorder and 50% of lifetime mental illness begins by age 14.  Because of this, it is important to talk about mental health openly and often with youth.  This will help you and them recognize changes in their thoughts, feelings and behaviors and know when to get help.  You can also help them learn ways to manage their emotions and build resiliency to better manage life’s challenges.

Mtv Health GIF by INTO ACTION - Find & Share on GIPHY

Creating A Safe Place to Talk

Before you jump into a conversation with young people about their mental health, it is important that you first create a safe space to talk. A safe space is something that is created over time. Find ways to connect about things that are going on in their lives on a regular basis. Plan activities they enjoy to help them more comfortable, and then find opportunities to ask questions about their lives, friends, school, current events, interests and how they feel about those things. Be sure to model openness by also sharing your own experience when appropriate. One way to do this in a program setting is by creating Group Agreements, which you can learn more about in the Program Basics BLUEprint.

If you sense a young person is struggling with their mental or emotional health, find ways to express your concern in a calm, and non-judgmental way. Actively listen while they talk and validate their feelings.  Allow the conversation to remain about them. Avoid saying things like: “You are going to be fine” or “I know how you feel.”  Refrain from assuming you know how they feel and sharing your opinions.  Be the kind of adult they want to talk to. Thank them for being open and vulnerable with you and let them know you are here to support them.

If youth are resistant to opening up to you, ask yourself if there are any other Club staff or adults in their life that they may be more comfortable talking to – parent or guardian, mentor, coach, relative, or religious leader.  The goal is to provide opportunities for them to share and get support when they need it.  Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone else, and that’s okay! 

Checking In Mental Health GIF by Seize the Awkward - Find & Share on GIPHY

Ways to Start a Conversation

Talking about mental health is easier than you may expect.  It’s as simple as asking questions that help youth open up about their life, knowing what the warning signs are, and getting support when its needed. These open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”, but instead allow others to give us a window into what they are thinking and feeling, and even get their brains working in more complex ways.

Below are some helpful discussion prompts to get the conversation started. These questions are meant to help you build trust and open the door for deeper conversations about young people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Consider using these conversation starters as community builders or as part of other programming, or when just chatting, and don’t be afraid to answer them yourself. The more often you open the door for sharing, the more youth will be willing to share with you.

  1. What makes you happy/sad/angry/frustrated/worried/scared?
  2. When you feel sad/happy/angry/frustrated/worried/scared, what do you do to make yourself feel better?
  3. What is something you think you are really good at?
  4. What makes you a good friend?
  5. What makes you feel supported?
  6. If you had a magic wand and could make the perfect life, what would it look like?
  7. If you were in charge of our Club, what would the rules be?
  8. What do you want to be when you grow up?
  9. What is something you are struggling with or worrying about?
  10. Tell me about your favorite book/movie/show and why you like it.
  11. What are 3 things you are thankful for?
  12. Pick 3 words to describe yourself. Why did you pick them?
  13. What do you like most about yourself?
  14. What’s something you want to get better at?

Handling Youth Disclosures

Remember that as a youth development professional, you are not expected to act as a therapist or counselor. You should, however, be able to recognize warning signs that a young person needs additional support and know some places to go for help.

  • If a young person discloses concerns about their own mental health, thank them for their openness and for sharing with the group, then follow up with them separately to ensure they have the support they need.
  • If a young person shares that they have suicidal thoughts or intentions, your priority is to keep them safe. For immediate safety and life-threatening mental health concerns, call 911, and contact a parent or caregiver. If the youth is not in immediate danger of suicide, but might benefit from speaking to a trained crisis professional, consider using the Crisis Text Line by texting “Club” to 741-741 and contacting a parent or caregiver.
  • If a youth discloses past or present abuse or neglect, follow the requirements of your state’s mandated reporting laws and your Club’s safety policies.

You are not alone in supporting Club youth. If your Club has a social worker or therapist on staff, ask them to help during or after the discussion session. If you do not have a mental health professional on staff and need additional guidance, contact your supervisor and create a plan for handling youth disclosures before running any other similar discussion sessions.

Mental Health Corona GIF by INTO ACTION - Find & Share on GIPHY

How do you meet youth mental health needs at your Club? What programming do you run around Emotional Wellness that other Clubs should know about? Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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