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

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.

It can be hard to know what to do to support someone experiencing difficulties. But to make sure all our members can thrive and feel safe we need to help everyone feel valued, supported and included.

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 disorder. Our Think Resilient resource encourages girls to talk about their mental wellbeing and the pressures they experience.

There's a lot of stigma and prejudice about mental health problems. This can stop people being open about what they are experiencing and make it hard for them to seek support. Understanding mental health problems will help you build a supportive environment for all members, where people can be open if they need additional help or are struggling.

Many people with a mental health problem manage it on a day-to-day basis without extra help, or with ongoing medical treatment. Others might need more support or could go through periods of time when their symptoms get better or worse.

It’s important to remember that many people with a mental health problem 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.

We should make reasonable adjustments to make sure that everyone can be included in guiding. These legal rights apply to people with a mental health condition even if they don’t describe themselves as disabled.

Types of mental health problems that you might come across include

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating problems
  • Phobias

There are many different mental health problems and everyone’s experience is different. For detailed information on particular mental health problems check the Mind website.

People don’t always realise when their mental health is getting worse. It’s often the people around them who will notice the changes that suggest that someone is experiencing difficulties. You might see changes in behaviour like:

  • Unusual displays of anxiety
  • Tearfulness
  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained and swinging emotions
  • Reports of changes to sleep

If you think someone might be struggling with their mental health try to encourage and support them to seek help; perhaps by visiting their GP.

Depending on the age of a young member, you might want to ask them if you can talk to their parent or carer. If you are concerned that a young member or adult volunteer is unwell but not getting the right support, contact [email protected]

Do not promise to keep what a young member has told you a secret. They might ask you if you are going to tell anyone about what they’ve told you. Reassure them you’ll only tell other people who want to help, and that you won’t share their story with other young members.

You don’t need to be an expert to be able to support to someone with a mental health problem. Being open and non-judgmental is a great place to start.

And don’t worry - if someone shares that they are struggling with their mental health or have a mental health problem, this is a sign they trust you. You don’t need to have all the answers, but do be ready to have a conversation about it:

  • Remind them that they can be open and honest with you.
  • Give them time and space to talk and tell you about their experience.
  • Ask them if there is anything that they know helps them stay well.
  • Be careful of your language. Avoid making statements that devalue and trivialize their illness and the challenges they are facing. It’s often out of their control. Don’t say things like “pull yourself together”; “keep your chin up” and “stop making a mountain out of a molehill”.
  • Try to be empathetic, reminding them that everyone deserves happiness. Either because of the illness or stigma, people with poor mental health can often feel that they deserve to be ill. Genuine positivity can help assure them that no one deserves to be ill.
  • When they are having a tough time remind them of some of the positive times and achievements they have had through guiding and some of the things that are being planned for the unit.
  • Remember that some days can be harder than others so it’s important to be flexible. Take the lead from them with the support they need on a meeting by meeting basis.
  • If they tell you they have been diagnosed with a specific mental health condition, it’s good to do some research about the condition. See the supporting organisation links below for information on specific conditions.  
  • You can discuss what support, if any, they might need and come up with a plan for making sure that happens. You can always review that plan at agreed times. We have a care plan which might help you to structure this conversation.
  • It’s important that someone’s mental health does not become the sole focus of their relationship or their time in Girlguiding. They will have interests, hobbies, school or work. And don’t forget you have a positive shared experience in guiding to focus on.

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.

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.

Sometimes even with the best will, you won’t feel comfortable or well placed to help someone. You should always feel safe in the support you offer. In a gentle but direct way, tell the person that you suggest they seek other assistance. Remind them that professional support is free and available and that you can help them access it.

Support organisations

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.

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.

Youth Mental Health First Aid

Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses are for everyone who works with, lives with or supports young people aged 8-18.

They will teach you the skills and confidence to spot the signs of mental health issues in a young person, offer first aid and guide them towards the support they need. In doing so, you can speed up a young person’s recovery and stop a mental health issue from getting worse.

Courses available

If volunteers in your district, division, county or country/region would like to receive fully-funded training in youth mental health skills, you can choose from these options:

These training courses are organised and delivered by MHFA England, not by Girlguiding. 

What you'll need

The two day and one day courses require a minimum of 12 participants and maximum of 16 on each, and all participants must take part in the entirety of the training to complete the course. The half day course is for a minimum of 20 participants and maximum of 25.

You'll need a venue that can comfortably fit everyone, with a screen and speakers.

To find out more and ask about booking a session, get in touch with Rafaela Ricardo at MHFA England on [email protected]

As a social enterprise, MHFA England reinvests profit made in the workplace into supporting communities that work directly with young people through sport and recreation, that might otherwise not be able to afford this training. Training courses can be delivered throughout the UK, but availability may depend on where MHFA England trainers are based.

Get advice on inclusion

Contact the info team at Girlguiding HQ for more information about including all girls and volunteers in guiding.

Email us