The words are never right. The time is never perfect. And life keeps piling stress after stress onto the people we love. What do we say to someone who might be struggling with a mental illness? I usually ask if I can help in any way or send them their favorite junk food with a heart-felt note. But does it really help? I don’t know.


In the book, Your Brain Needs A Hug: Life, Love, Mental Health, and Sandwiches, author Rae Earl uses a personable tone and humor to crack open the reader and bring perspective about a touchy topic—mental health. Near the end of the book, Earl gives the reader some advice on what to say or do for someone with a mental illness. The entire chapter is worth a read, but below is an excerpt to kick off your learning.


Earl starts off by saying that when we want to help someone with any illness we always default to what makes us feel better when we are in a hard situation, but to remember that that might not be what that person needs to hear or do. Everyone is different.


Perhaps it’s easier to start with a list of don’ts. There are universally unhelpful things to do or say to anyone that’s suffering with a mental illness:

Don’t try to solve all their problems… Don’t be the clown who tries to make them smile or the advice-giver who tries to wave a magic wand over their illness and their life. That isn’t helping them. Honor where someone is in their life, and listen.

Don’t tell them to pull themselves together, or to smile… Encourage them to seek professional help, but don’t moan at them. Sometimes going on and on about getting help may make someone feel pressured and stressed and perhaps less likely to get help. 

Don’t hover over them like a hawk or smother them. (261).


Over the next several pages it talks about “very simple ways you can help someone with their mental health” and also “how to help yourself when you’re helping others.” Providing students with this guidance will give them the tools they’ll need to be a good friend, family member, or peer for their entire lives. Plus, honestly, how many of us teachers needed this guide too? I know I did!



Provide a few scenarios about encounters with someone who is struggling with mental illness and discuss the do’s and don’ts provided in this book. You can split students into groups or partners or have them work independently for 15 to 20 minutes, then circle around and have each group share thoughts about their assigned scenario. I recommend doing one scenario together as a class as an example.



  • Your friend from P.E. class tells you that their parents are getting divorced and that they heard their older sister crying last night in her room. Their older sister is always the tougher one, and that made their anxiety amp up and prevented them from getting quality sleep. Your friend is visibly anxious, pacing back and forth, talking really fast, and it looks like they might cry. What support would you provide for this scenario and why?

  • Your 10-year-old brother says a boy in his class has been bullying him and tells him to “jump off a roof” multiple times a week. Your little brother is confused about what he did wrong and what this boy really means when he says that. Your brother says he sometimes goes to the bathroom and cries in secret. He is scared to be around the bully and he is scared to have this boy see him be emotional. What support would you provide for this scenario and why?

  • Your friend hasn’t been in school for the past week and you know she’s been really depressed. She only texts you back very late at night when everyone is supposed to be sleeping. She has trouble sleeping and says that everything caves in on her at night. She sounds helpless and scared. You don’t get the texts until the morning when your alarm goes off for school and now she won’t text you back. What support would you provide for this scenario and why?

  • Your classmate isn’t sitting with his normal group of friends and he has his hood up and his head down on the desk for most of class. The teacher approached him a couple of times to ask what’s wrong or how he can help, but the student didn’t respond. You and this student are in the same photography club after school and have partnered up on projects before, so you decide to talk to him then. What support would you provide for this scenario and why?

  • Your best friend has been texting you nonstop and only wants to be around you and no one else. You allow it because she’s your best friend, and sometimes she needs a bit of extra love and support because of her anxiety and depression. You’re always there for her. Tomorrow is your monthly family dinner with your grandparents and your mom has reminded you that your friend can’t come along. You’re getting anxious about how to tell her that she can’t come and a little annoyed that she has been taking up all of your time. You even failed a math quiz because you didn’t have time to study. It’s overwhelming you. What support would you provide for your friend and yourself in this scenario and why?


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Jennifer Epping is a high school English and journalism teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a passion for reading, writing, and making lame jokes to her students just to see them laugh or roll their eyes. She just concluded her ninth year teaching. Epping graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in journalism and mass communication (2010) and BA in English Education (2013). She attended New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute (2010), and spent some time in children’s book publishing in New York