Being a support person

The earlier a student receives support for emotional, behavioural or social difficulties, the better chance they have of overcoming these hurdles and avoiding more serious mental illnesses.

Supporting an international student who is showing signs of a mental illness lets them know someone cares and shows them who to go to if they need help.

A support person’s role is to:

  • be the first point of contact
  • advocate on behalf of the student’s needs and rights
  • help the student access the mental health support
  • communicate regularly with people involved with the students, such as homestay families, friends, teachers, parents and agents.

How to support a student

Let the student know they can talk to you and that it’s OK to ask for help. If the student wants to talk, try to make time for it.

Show an interest in the student and in what’s important to them, rather than always focusing on their problem. It may be helpful to learn about the student’s culture, values and beliefs.

Provide consistent and supportive attention. Do things you enjoy together: go for a walk, or have a coffee.

Rather than telling the student what to do, ask them for their opinion and encourage them to make their own decisions. Focus on their strong points and acknowledge what they’ve done well.

Reassure the student that anxiety and stress are normal, common and temporary. Show them that having hope and belief can help change things for the better.

See the Starting a conversation page for advice on starting healthy conversations.

Establishing a support network

You can’t be everything to everyone, and the student may feel more comfortable speaking to someone else. The student may have established a strong relationship with a homestay coordinator, administrative staff member or ESOL teacher.

Use these people as part of your department’s support network. Give them the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of mental health issues, so they can be the person who walks alongside the student.

Establish a support network before the student’s mental health issues develop into a more serious mental disorder.

The student’s primary support person may not always be available, so ask others – such as a teacher, sports coach, friend, peer or church leader – to be a secondary support person.

Record keeping

It can be difficult to determine which behaviour is age-appropriate, and which behaviour should cause concern. If students are showing signs of anxiety or stress, it’s important to keep good records of even small changes in behaviour.

Record keeping can:

  • help you and your staff identify emotional, social or physical changes
  • help you identify what’s happening with your student, rather than making assumptions
  • make it easier to determine when you should be more concerned and seek further help.

Many young people internalise their problems rather than talking about how they’re feeling. Take note of any physical problems they might be suffering, such as headaches or stomach aches, or any aggressive behaviour.

MindMatters, a national mental health programme for Australian secondary schools, has created guidelines to responding to observations. These guidelines can help you decide when to take action if you have concerns about a student

MindMatters guidelines to responding to observations

Level 3


Alert appropriate staff and seek immediate mental health or emergency support for alarming observations such as:

  • risk to self (suicidal or self-harm ideas)
  • odd, bizarre or extreme behaviour; not making sense
  • risk to others, such as the student threatening to harm someone they think is trying to harm them.
Level 2


Advise appropriate staff, support the student and refer for additional support if:

  • you have noticed multiple changes, such as not attending class, falling grades, problems with friends, tearful
  • you have noticed changes in multiple settings, such as home, school and sports practice
  • the symptoms have continued for a while and aren’t improving
  • problems are occurring frequently
  • problems are causing difficulties in the student’s relationships, schoolwork and usual activities.
Level 1


Speak to the student, parents or teachers. Continue to monitor and check in with others if:

  • you have noticed minor changes that are out of character. For example, the student might be less talkative than usual, might turn up late or might appear more tired than usual.


Principles associated with being a support person

Trust. Developing a strong relationship and building trust will help your student to be open and honest with you.

Cultural responsiveness. Understanding the student’s cultural beliefs and values may give them a sense of belonging and a more positive sense of self, which can help them to learn positive coping skills when experiencing painful emotions.

Being culturally receptive is about understanding how a student’s cultural background has formed their personal views. It involves working in ways that resonate with them and affirm their culture.

Privacy. Only seek further support if the subjects of self-harm or suicide are raised. This should be done in consultation with the student. Respecting the student’s privacy is a fundamental part of keeping the lines of communication open.

Understand the student’s rights. For students from collectivist cultures, the rights of the individual are less important. While cultural values must be considered, acting in the best interests of the group doesn’t justify neglecting or violating the best interests of the student.

The Charter of Tamariki/Children’s and Rangatahi/Young People’s Rights in Healthcare Services in Aotearoa New Zealand (a consensus statement by Children’s Hospitals Australasia and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand) says every young person has a right to:

  1. Consideration of their best interests as the primary concern of all involved in his or her care.
  2. Express their views, to be heard and taken seriously.
  3. The highest attainable standard of healthcare.
  4. Respect for themselves as a whole person, as well as respect for their family and the family’s individual characteristics, beliefs, values, culture and contexts.
  5. Be nurtured by their parents and family and to have family relationships supported by the service in which the child or young person is receiving healthcare (family does not necessarily mean a blood relative).
  6. Information, in a form that is understandable to them.
  7. Participate in decision-making and, as appropriate to their capabilities, to make decisions about their care.
  8. Be kept safe from all forms of harm.
  9. Have their privacy respected.
  10. Participate in education, play, creative activities and recreation, even if this is difficult due to their illness or disability.
  11. Continuity of healthcare, including well-planned care that takes them beyond the paediatric context.

Resources: Guidelines: supporting young people with stress, anxiety and/or depression (Ministry of Social Development, on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Youth Mental Health Project)