Addressing Mental Health Concerns With Compassion

Today Kate Endries, MSW, licensed social worker and BGCA Senior Advisor of Trauma-Informed Practice, is bringing third 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.

If you notice warning signs that a young person may need additional mental or emotional support, it’s best to initiate a direct conversation. Try not to approach the conversations with an agenda, but instead open up a space for them to share openly with you.  Ask direct, compassionate questions about the things you are noticing in a supportive, and non-judgmental manner. Validate their experiences, feelings, and concerns to make them feel heard. Engage in the conversation by listening actively and offering to help. Ask how you can help before assuming you know what they need or taking an action. Involving youth in the problem-solving process helps them feel valued and supported.

Below are a few response examples of ways you can help validate a young person’s feelings and help them feel heard: 

Instead of….  Try …  
“You’ll be fine. Just get over it.” “Wow, that sounds really difficult.  I am sorry you’re going through that.  I’m here for you.” 
“Just try to be more positive.” “I am sorry you’re feeling down right now.  I am here to listen.” 
“Why are you crabby all the time?” “I noticed you don’t seem like yourself lately.  Is everything okay? I’m here for you.” 
“You need to go to bed earlier.” “I noticed you’re staying up pretty late, are you having trouble sleeping? What’s keeping you up?” 
“Why aren’t you doing your homework? You need to get your grades up.” “It seems like you’re having trouble in school, what’s going on and how can I help?” 
“Why do you always pick at your food?” “I noticed you haven’t eaten much, how are you feeling?”  
“You need to calm down.” “I see that you are upset.  Can you tell me more about what’s going on?” 
“Just look on the bright side.”  “Sometimes it must seem like things are stacked against you.  We will get through this together.” 
“You just need to take some deep breaths.”  “What can I do to help you get through that situation if it comes up again?” 
“You know, I feel that same way and here’s what I do about it.” “I think I understand that you feel _____ when ____ happens, is that right?” 

It’s also important not to make assumptions about what may be causing a youth’s mental or emotional concerns.  For example, if they seem anxious, don’t assume you know the reasons why they feel that way.  Instead, encourage them to talk more specifically about their fears. By listening carefully to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may find ways to provide support or problem solve together. 

Mental Health Wellbeing GIF by YouTube - Find & Share on GIPHY

Addressing concerns about mental health is not always going to be easy or come naturally.  Sometimes you’re going to mess up.  Sometimes you’re not going to say the right thing.  And at first, a youth might not want to talk much, and might even seem angrier after you talk. That’s okay. The goal is to get it right more often than not.  When you do make a mistake, be open, apologize and try again.  Not only will they appreciate your truthfulness, it gives them permission to make mistakes too. 

On Our Sleeves has articles and support with more information on helping to manage youth well-being, including on topics such as anxiety, body image, relationships, school problems, and more. BGCA has ideas for Club staff on incorporating Emotional Wellness content into your summer programming, the recently revised SMART Moves program guides for both kids and teens, plus you can see the latest live and on-demand training opportunities on a Trauma-Informed Approach and Emotional Safety by visiting Spillett Leadership University.

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

Handling Youth Disclosures

  • If a young person discloses concerns about their own mental health, thank them for their openness and for sharing, and if it was in a group setting, 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.

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.

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 discussions with youth. 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.

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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