Why don't we have mental health first-aiders? (and other reflections from the Student Well-being Workshop)
Why don't we have mental health first-aiders? (and other reflections from the Student Well-being Workshop)
Why don't we have mental health first-aiders? (and other reflections from the Student Well-being Workshop)
Cecile Doyen, Associate Director of School Support & Evaluation
By Kate Taverner

As a new recruit to CIS in 2019, I became quickly aware of the organization’s dedication to child safeguarding and the well-being of young people. I’d heard first-hand from colleagues and members of our community about the profound and perhaps confronting experience of attending a CIS Child Protection Workshop. Harsh realities are brought into sharp focus and participants leave with an urgency to take positive action.

I was eager to learn more about this important work, especially as CIS expands this work across the continuum of education from kindergarten to university, looking more broadly beyond child abuse and safeguarding towards student mental health, peer-on-peer abuse, the impact of cultural biases, and digital safety.

I had the opportunity to learn more at the inaugural Student Well-being Workshop for both schools and universities in November in Bilbao. An extraordinary group of experts from diverse and interconnected fields, many of whom also present at our Child Protection Workshops, packed their sessions with information, tips and resources. Here are some of the things I learned from them:

Setting the scene

Student suicide in the US has tripled since the 1950s. (Katie Rigg, Head of Safeguarding and Student Well-being)

Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in the US for youth ages 15–24. (Doug Walker, Clinical Psychologist)

Nearly 70% of university students surveyed in Canada feel lonely. (Salisha Randell, Ryerson University, Canada)

62% of students had experienced a form of violence against women in the Spanish University context. 27% felt the university did not support them and 69% felt unsure the university would (Valls et al., 2016). More students in Japan commit suicide on 1 September than any other day of the year (approaching their return to a new college term) (Mext.go.JP, 2015). In the US, 72% of sexual harassment, 25% of sexual assaults and 17.5% of adolescent rape occurred in school as opposed to elsewhere (Turner et al., 2011). These are all stats from Jenny Lloyd's presentation. Jenny is Senior Research fellow at the University of Bedfordshire.

Student Well-being Workshop Panel Discussion


We now find ourselves in an age of Destructive perfectionism: “…perfectionism in young people has risen by more than a third over the past three decades.”—According to a study by the University of Bath and York St John University. Keynote speaker Natasha Devon wrote about this for TES. Symptoms include when young people feel that they must look/be effortlessly perfect, have an increased feeling of inadequacy, leading to a decreased sense of self. Perfectionism is off the charts for Generation Z’ers, young people born into hyper-capitalism, in an environment that teaches never to be content with what we have. (Natasha Devon, keynote speaker, writer and campaigner)

The dynamics of adolescence are often framed by: 'risk' and motivation for thrills; short-term gains; emotional regulation; increasing desire for autonomy. (Jenny Lloyd, Senior Research Fellow, University of Bedfordshire)

We check our devices on average every 12 minutes that we are awake! Youth (ages 15–24) is the most connected age group. Worldwide, 71% are online compared to 48% of the total population. Persuasive design features draw on psychological and social theories to influence human behaviour. (Kate Edwards, Childnet International)


Every Minute of the day 2019 infographic
Infographic credit: Domo

How we talk about mental health and well-being

Let's change how we talk about mental health and help to destigmatise it. Instead of saying that 1 in 4 people have mental health issues, why don’t we say that 4 in 4 people have a head(!) and therefore have mental health to care for? (Natasha Devon)

Did you know that English has the smallest vocabulary to describe emotions? Consequently, there is a lot of room for interpretation, as phrases like “I feel anxious” are vague. In German, however, there are 15 different words to describe different types of anger and gives far greater insight into the individual’s state of mind. (Natasha Devon)

Student Well-being Workshop Natasha Devon

      © 2017 www.cartooncommunications.com via Natasha Devon

Instead of asking open-ended questions like “How are you?”, ask more specific questions like “What makes it feel better or worse?” “Can you feel it anywhere else in your body?” “How long have you felt it?” These kinds of questions help to improve dopamine levels because the individual feels like the person asking is interested in them, making them feel safer, more interesting, more loved and not judged. (Natasha Devon)

Messages around teenage relationships can often be negative: You might get pregnant, get a disease, be distracted from school work and exams. Yet there can be many positives around relationships too that we can emphasise: young people may be more likely to open up and communicate with their significant other, can get support from them, may receive empathy and open up to showing vulnerability. (Susie March, Specialist in educational services, based on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and Personal, Social, Health & Education (PSHE))

There are students who are not accessing health resources at university because they fear they may not find the right words to say how they feel or what they need in the language of the country they are studying within. Some fear being labelled unintelligent if unable to express themselves well. (Keith Layman, Grade 9-12 Counsellor at International School of Dusseldorf)

(See these three related posts: “Students” not “clients”: A call to change our terminologyThree ways your words can make students saferDo you know my name? Lost in the university application funnel.)


Cultural contexts and challenges

One participant talked about the difficulty of cultural contexts when finding the right way to support a student in need. A school counsellor can feel stuck with nowhere to turn for additional support for their student because alerting the parents, school leaders or police may put the student in harm's way due to cultural beliefs. For example, supporting an LGBTQ+ student in a country where it is illegal and the individual can suffer persecution.

Cultural diversity and biases play such an important role in understanding how to help a victim of abuse. Seeking help from a counsellor may be stigmatised more in some cultures than in others. Jordan Greenbaum MD (a child abuse physician who works with victims of suspected physical/sexual abuse, neglect and sex trafficking) recommends that we can try to navigate cultural differences by: Listen and learn; Show respect and curiosity; Demonstrate an open attitude; Reflect on our own biases; Explain our belief/practice/position; Find common ground.

Understanding our cultural biases is always an important, if not essential, practice in the world of international education. Learn to understand your core and flex—these are the things that at your core that cannot be changed and the things that you are able and may be willing to flex. You can find out more about this from Ann Straub, our CIS International Adviser who leads professional development opportunities around intercultural competence, intercultural leadership and global citizenship development. 


Student Well-being Workshop Ann Straubs slide


Culture forms the context within which people judge the appropriateness of their behaviour. Organizational culture can best be described as “the way we do things around here”. When it comes to perpetrators of abuse there are many common beliefs like: It does not and could not happen at our school or university. We are vigilant and we have vetting procedures so it’s not possible that it happens here. (Marcus Erooga, Independent Safeguarding Consultant)


Being more intentional

Why is it that we have first aiders to support our physical needs in our schools and in our workplaces but we don't have mental health first-aiders? (Natasha Devon) Shouldn't we start thinking about making this a standard?

What kind of organization do you want your school or university to be? And what skills do you want to develop in your staff to achieve it? How can you tell if your teachers are modelling these behaviours? Do you intentionally budget and allocate time to develop the relationship skills of your staff so that they can more effectively support their diverse student needs? (Ellen Mahoney, Sea Change Mentoring)

Some of the key elements of a child-safe organizational culture are: Explicit safeguarding culture and ethos; Clear policies and procedures so staff know what is expected of them; Courageous management prepared to act on concerns; Children and young people having a voice to raise concerns. (Marcus Erooga)

Connectedness is an important aspect of managing mental health issues. Helping students to identify their coping mechanisms can be as simple as realising that a phone-call to a friend is part of their toolkit. 


Join us for a Mental Health & Well-being Workshop

22–24 November 2022 | Virtual

Learn how to embed a positive culture and create psychological safety for your community of students, staff, and faculty. You’ll be guided by experts in the field as you explore ways to empower and actively engage your community as they face everyday and emerging challenges. Sessions will be available on-demand in the weeks following so you can catch up or view again at your own convenience.




All our members can seek support and resources on many of these topics from our CIS Affiliated Consultants, part of a global network of schools, higher education institutions, educators and organizations in 116 countries dedicated to quality international education. 

CIS Child Protection workshops are currently scheduled in The Netherlands, Colombia and Vietnam in early 2020. Learn more and register.

Katie Rigg, Head of Safeguarding & Student Well-being, will be publishing a series of co-produced articles and resources for CIS member schools and universities over the coming 18 months, available via the CIS Community portal. If you don’t work at a CIS member school or university you can still sign-up to receive updates.

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Why don't we have mental health first-aiders? (and other reflections from the Student Well-being Workshop)
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  • School & university collaboration
  • Student well-being
Why don't we have mental health first-aiders? (and other reflections from the Student Well-being Workshop)