Mental health and guiding

One in four people in the UK is affected by a mental health issue - learn how we can help everyone feel safe and thrive

Mental health affects how we think, feel and behave. Some people refer to mental health as ‘wellbeing’.

Every year, one in four of us in the UK is affected by a mental health problem, so it’s likely that you or someone in your unit will experience this.

Mental health, like physical health, is important at all stages of life - from childhood through to adolescence and into adulthood. An person’s mental health does not always stay the same and can fluctuate as life circumstances change or they move through different stages of their life.

Although everybody has times where they feel sad, stressed or worried, usually these feelings pass. However, sometimes these difficulties develop into more severe and lasting problems which can affect an individual’s ability to cope with life. This can happen to anyone.

Because it's a normal part of being human to feel occasional anxiety, worry and low in mood, it can make it hard to recognise whether you or people around you are experiencing a mental health difficulty or not. It's when these problems persist for a long time, are severe, or when they start affecting someone’s ability to function in their day-to-day lives, that further support might be needed.

To foster a support an inclusive environment, we should make adjustments to make sure that young members and volunteers can be fully included in guiding.

It’s important to remember that many people with a mental health difficulty are protected under the Equality Act 2010 protection for disabled people. This means it would be unlawful to discriminate against them or treat them unfairly because of their mental health. These legal rights apply to many people with a mental health difficulty, even if they don’t describe themselves as disabled.

Mental health in young people

Mental health problems can be especially hard on children and young people.

The NHS estimates that 1 in 8 children between ages 5-19 have at least one mental health condition. Our Think Resilient resource encourages girls to talk about their mental wellbeing and the pressures they experience.

Adolescence (age 10-19 years) is the stage in life when someone goes through the transition from childhood to adulthood. It's also the period when mental health difficulties are most likely to first develop. According to NHS data from 2017, one in eight children aged 5 to 19 in the UK experience a mental health difficulty.

The most common mental health difficulties are anxiety and depression. Anxiety is characterised by excessive fear and worry. Depression is characterised by low mood, loss of interest, low energy and poor self-esteem.

There are many different mental health problems and everyone’s experience is different.

To find out more about other mental health difficulties, see the Mind website.

There are signs that can help you recognise when someone in your unit is struggling with their mental health.

Remember that mental health difficulties aren't always visible. You might only realise someone is struggling when they start opening up to you.

Look out for:

Changes in behaviour:

  • Withdrawing from others
  • Loss of interest or engagement in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Eating less than usual, or overeating
  • Problems interacting with others in groups (In your unit, at school, or at work)
  • Self-harming
  • Changes in play behaviour in young members, for example more fighting games with toys, or difficulties relating to others

Changes in mood, thinking or perceptions:

  • Being more irritable or angry
  • Persistent sadness or frequent crying
  • Inability to relax or excessive worrying
  • Problems with memory
  • Mistrust of other people or paranoia
  • Unusual thoughts or experiences, such as seeing or hearing things which aren’t there
  • Talking about feeling worthless or guilty, or about feeling numb
  • Expressing thoughts of not wanting to be around any longer, or wanting to die
  • Having thoughts of wanting to self-harm

Changes in physical health, or appearance:

  • Having low or no energy
  • Looking tired or reporting sleep difficulties at night
  • Changes in weight
  • A decline in personal hygiene
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or panicky feelings

If you have a concern, you should let the member know you would like to talk to someone about how you can best help them.

You should follow the standard Girlguiding safeguarding procedure for sharing your concerns.

The safeguarding team may ask you (or an appropriate volunteer) to share your concerns with the member or their parents/carers if you haven't already done so.

They will also assess if you need to make a referral the local authority to be signposted to a mental health service. The team will provide advice or signpost you to any support that can be given to the member or their family.

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about their own and others’ mental health – as volunteers, you might feel worried about saying the wrong thing, not knowing what to do if something is disclosed to you that is worrying, or you may feel unsure about how to start a conversation about mental health.

Those struggling might feel embarrassment or shame about experiencing their difficulties, which might make being open with you difficult, or prevent them from seeking help.

If you notice changes in a member’s behaviour, or spot signs that they might be struggling, try to start a conversation about how they are feeling.

When starting conversations about mental health, follow these principles:

  • Find somewhere quiet to talk
  • Ask open questions
  • Give the person time
  • Repeat back
  • Validate the person’s feelings, so that they feel understood and heard
  • Try not to offer solutions or to fix things, unless they ask for your advice
  • Discuss what support you can offer
  • Take their concerns seriously
  • Let the member know you are there to support them
  • Don’t promise to keep what a member has told you a secret

These principles apply whether you are working with someone for the first time, or whether someone has known mental health difficulties.

If the member has experienced these difficulties previously, you might explore what has helped them in the past to cope.

As with talking to a young person about their mental health difficulties, talking to parent and carers to share your concerns about their child might feel uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking too. You might feel unsure of how to start the conversation, or of how they will react.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Ask them how their daughter has been at home recently, and whether they have any concerns themselves about how they have been feeling or acting
  • Explain what you have noticed that made you concerned for their wellbeing and outline your concerns.
  • If you have sought safeguarding advice, share the suggested action for supporting the young person (eg. a referral to children’s services), and explore how they feel about this.
  • Reassure them that there are support services to help them and their child, that young people can manage and recover from mental health difficulties, and that the sooner they engage with help the better.

If a conversation with parents or carers raises more concerns, remember to follow the Safeguarding procedure. If you’re concerned that by talking to the parent/carer, it would place the member at further risk of harm, contact the safeguarding team.

Remember that in Scotland people aged 16+ are classed as adults so it would not usually be appropriate to involve parents or carers in a conversation about their mental health.

It’s important to make sure that members with mental health difficulties are fully included and supported throughout their time in guiding.

After an initial conversation, make sure you keep the member (and their parents/carers where appropriate) involved in any decision making. It’s a good idea to have a follow-up conversation about their difficulties and what ongoing support you can offer them in guiding.

For a member with a diagnosed mental health difficulty, this could mean finding out more about the specific diagnosis, but for others, this will mean finding out more about their experiences. Remember, as with physical health, mental health can change all the time and everyone has ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days.

During your follow-up conversations, you might find it useful to ask the member about:

  • What helps them stay as mentally healthy as possible (for example, having time to talk to their friends during unit meetings)
  • Any situations that might arise in guiding that could trigger a worsening of their difficulties (for example, being asked to read aloud)
  • What coping mechanisms they find useful (for example, listening to music with their headphones)
  • What support or adjustments you can make that would minimise triggers or help them to manage the impact of these (for example, being allowed to take time out of activities to sit quietly)
  • What changes you as a volunteer might notice if they’re particularly struggling (for example, withdrawing from the group)
  • What you as a volunteer can do if you notice them struggling (for example, take them aside for a chat)

Based on this conversation, you should plan for how you and your team will support the member in unit meetings.

This might involve making some adjustments to the way you run certain activities in order to support the member. For example, do you need to set aside a quieter space where the member can take some time out if needed?

Some adjustments will require additional support and forward planning, so remember to plan and think ahead. You might want to use an adjustment plan to guide the conversation and agree adjustments with the member (and parents/carers).

There may be times where you can’t reasonably make adjustments for some members,  because of cost or a need for additional volunteers. But every effort must be made if it's reasonable to do so.

The Accessible Guiding grant can provide financial help to support young disabled members access all areas of guiding, from unit meetings through to international trips. It can also help volunteers who need additional support to carry out their guiding role.

It’s a good idea to review any support or adjustments you put in place on a regular basis to check they’re still working well. An agreed review day is recommended and at least once a term may be useful.

It's important to give some extra thought when planning for trips and overnight events. The good news is that by talking about it and planning in advance, girls experiencing mental health difficulties should be able to access trips and camps as long as it's safe for them.

Everything that we've already covered about involving members (and their parents/carers where appropriate) in the decision making still applies here.

But mental health difficulties need to be more carefully managed and monitored while away from your normal meeting place. New environments and experiences may be a trigger for some members and it’s essential to explore as many of these in advance as possible.

In some cases, it may be necessary to complete a risk assessment to determine whether a member can safely attend a trip or overnight event. You should do this in the same way to a risk assessment you might complete for a member who is a wheelchair user and wanting to attend camp.

It’s vital to include the member (and their parents/carers where appropriate) in decisions. It may also be worth agreeing an emergency action plan in advance to prepare for what to do should their mental health worsen when you are away.

There may be times where you can’t reasonably make adjustments for some members, because of cost or a need for additional volunteers. But every effort must be made if it's reasonable to do so.

The Accessible Guiding grant can provide financial help to support young disabled members access all areas of guiding, from unit meetings through to international trips. It can also help volunteers who need additional support to carry out their guiding role.

It's much easier to plan for things when you are aware of them. There may be occasions where there are no previously known difficulties and the members starts to show signs of experiencing a mental health difficulty.

This might be an understandable reaction to being in a new environment and should be handled sensitively, just as you would in a unit meeting.

Sometimes a person’s mental health can get worse, and they can have feelings they are really struggling with. They may feel they are at a breaking point or experience panic attacks or significant anxiety. They might feel overwhelming paranoia or hallucinate if they experience a psychotic episode.

Some people may harm themselves - often this will be hidden from sight. They might cut, scratch or burn themselves, pull their hair or take a drug. Although it can be hard to understand, self-harm doesn't mean that someone wants to end their life. It can be a way for them to manage feelings or experiences that they are finding tough. Check our advice about self-harm.

At times of crisis and significant distress, people are likely to become panicked and in “fight or flight” mode. They may act more assertively, become teary, confused and irritable.

If this happens, start by assessing the area: who else is around? Is there anything hazardous? Is there an immediate risk of harm? Consider also how you are feeling and if you are the best person in the area to offer support.

  • Don’t panic or show judgement.
  • Be patient and listen to them.
  • Give them physical, private space. Stay calm and avoid sudden body movements. Don’t give them hugs or close physical comfort, getting into their space can be upsetting for some people.
  • Talk with a calm voice, don’t shout. Focus on listening and encouraging them to speak. Use short, clear sentences and don’t give advice or ask too many questions.
  • Don’t try to label what is going on and don’t call them attention seeking. Take their experience seriously.
  • Tell them what you are about to do before you do it. For example, explain you are asking someone to come help you.
  • Many people find doing a practical activity or walking can distract them and help them find clarity. Ask if they would like to try this but don’t pressure them to do so.
  • Ask them what strategies have helped them in the past when they have felt like this.
  • Encourage them to seek support or look with them for immediate support from the links below.
  • Seek their permission to call someone they trust or someone who can help care for them. If necessary, and in order to keep them safe, you may need to call them without the person’s consent.

Whilst unlikely, if you feel someone is an immediate risk of harm to themselves or others you can contact emergency services for help.

Every effort should be made to support a member with mental health problems. This may sometimes include suggesting a break from guiding.

There may be times where an adult volunteer is in crisis. If their behaviour becomes challenging, then the wellbeing of the young members in their care should be considered the priority.

Where to get more support?

You may find that you need some extra information, or that you’d like some help with supporting a specific member.

For extra support, you can contact your local commissioner who may also be able to put you in touch with a local inclusion adviser. You can also contact [email protected] for bespoke advice from our HQ inclusion team. Always follow the Girlguiding safeguarding procedure if you have a concern about a member’s safety or welfare.

Remember to seek support from other volunteers and commissioners for yourself where necessary, as supporting someone with their mental health concerns can be distressing for you too. To find out more about supporting your own wellbeing, see NHS Every Mind Matters.

The Accessible Guiding grant helps to support disabled members and volunteers, and those with health conditions (including mental health difficulties), access all areas of guiding. The grant covers a whole range of things, from the cost of training to promote awareness of an individual’s mental health condition to an extra volunteer ‘buddy’ to attend a camp or trip.

YoungMinds - National charity focussed on children and young people’s mental health; provide lots of information for young people on staying well. They also offer a 24 hour crisis support service.

Mind - Provide lots of information on mental health problems and ideas for managing mental health well. To find out more about different mental health conditions, see the Mind website.

Time to Change - The campaign to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination, including through providing awareness raising resources for youth groups.

The Samaritans - A confidential service for people in despair and who feel suicidal. 116 123

Youth Wellbeing Directory - Helps you find support for mental health and wellbeing of young people up to age 25 across the UK.

Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) - CAMHS is used as a term for all services that work with children and young people who have difficulties with their emotional or behavioural wellbeing.

SANE – Emotional support, information and guidance for people affect by mental illness, their families, and carers. SANEline: 0300 304 7000 (daily, 4:30pm to 10:30pm)

Cruse Bereavement Care - support with bereavements and information about local services. Phone: 0808 808 1677 (Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm)

Kooth – online mental wellbeing community for young people. Online counsellors available from 12noon until 10pm (weekdays), and 6pm – 10pm on weekends; discussion boards.

The Mix – free support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them, via phone, webchat or email.

Samaritans – helpline for anyone in distress, open 24 hours a day. Phone 116 123 or email [email protected]

SHOUT – free crisis text messenger service. Text SHOUT to 85258 for 24/7 help from crisis volunteers.


Smiling Mind – free mindfulness app for all ages. Available on Apple and Android.

Calm Harm - helps young people manage urges to self-harm. Free on Apple and Android