By James Ziegler
There’s always at least one student who signs up for my classes only to never be heard from again. Maybe they forgot to drop. Maybe I need to update my grade book. With each zero I give out for participation, the question lingers: should I reach out? Early on in my teaching career, that question took on extra weight when a student who had ‘ghosted’ out of my discussion section turned back up.
She had been struggling with depression, missing classes and assignments, too embarrassed to ask for help. After getting help, she had pulled herself up to the level of hoping to salvage a grade, but the pile of missing work was massive.
Part of the reason I hadn’t reached out when she disappeared from sections was time, but part was my own paralyzing fear of what to do if a student needs help.
We’re not trained counselors, but there are some little things instructors can do that make a big difference for student mental health.
Nationally, the number of students in higher education experiencing mental health problems is on the rise. Erin Cox at the University of Connecticut Counseling and Mental Health Services (CHMS) can confirm that for our community at UConn. “We are much, much, busier than we used to be,” she said. “CMHS has seen demand for services rising over the past ten years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. I think that can reflect greater needs on campus, but it also can reflect a reduction in stigma around asking for mental health support,” Cox said. One thing is for sure though– those needs are out there and reflected in the students in our classes. As instructors, the possibility we will encounter students whose mental health is impacting their performance is almost certain.
During the 2016-17 academic year, over 30% of students nation-wide reported depression, 26% anxiety disorders, and 11% considered suicide (Eisenberg & Lipson, 2018). On the positive, help-seeking is also on the rise, and school environments that encourage help-seeking are protective against students acting on thoughts of suicide. One factor contributing to that help-seeking environment are instructors. With some relatively simple ways that I’ll list below, we can be a resource for students in need.
Just reaching out can make a difference, even if only to show empathy. “For students to just hear, ‘Wow, it sounds like you’re going through a lot. I’m glad you shared this.’ That can be very validating,” Cox said. “Offering that supportive ear, engaging in some active reflective listening, is a really curative thing for people.” Sometimes having an instructor acknowledge the struggle that goes into learning can overcome fears about asking for help.
Cox suggests putting a statement on the syllabus, something to the effect of “It’s okay to feel challenged, but if you notice that it’s not improving come to me as soon as you can,” Cox said. “I’m open to talking to you about those things. I won’t judge you for that. That’s part of the process. I’ve struggled too.” Reassuring students that we also struggled in getting to be an instructor is important. From a student’s perspective we can seem like wildly successful academics at the top of our field. Some get the feeling that struggling isn’t a normal part of success.
After reassuring students they can come to us, what if they do? And, what should we look out for in the students who don’t come to us?
The biggest thing to look out for is any sudden change in behavior. That includes the student who becomes sullen or stops showing up to class, but also sudden shifts to being overly gregarious, interrupting or disrupting class, and of course any behavior that includes talking about or alluding to suicide or self-harming behavior.
When reaching out to a student, Cox recommends framing it in relation to the class. “I appreciate your participation in class at the beginning of this semester, I’ve noticed that you haven’t been partaking in that recently and I wanted to check in. Is everything okay? Is there something I can do to help with the class?” Keeping it class-focused relieves some of the pressure and can make it feel a little less intrusive.
Empathic listening can go a long way, but don’t try to be a counselor. Relieve pressure on yourself by knowing what resources are available. CMHS offers the normal short-term counseling and prescription management services expected of a campus mental health organization, butt they also have some unique services. There are also crisis services and staff who can answer questions about what to do about a student you are concerned about. For a student actually needing help with a mental health issue, directing them to professional services is the right thing to do. Making a call to CMHS (860-486-4705, available 24/7) with them or walking them over to the office can help ensure they actually get connected. Following that, checking in with the student after referring them can help to relieve the stigma the student might feel.
CMHS also has drop in consultation hours Monday through Friday from 1-2pm in the Arjona building and on Tuesday from 11:30am-12:30pm in the Student Union. If a student is unsure about whether they are feeling a normal amount of stress and anxiety or something more serious, these drop-in sessions can be helpful. There, students can spend 10-20 minutes talking with a counselor about their concerns and get referrals if needed.
For coping with stress there are free yoga classes every Thursday at 11am and 12:15pm. There are also Recognition, Insight, Openness workshops weekly throughout the semester. These three-session workshops focus on mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.
For instructors, CMHS offers in-person and online suicide prevention trainings. The UConn Helps training can be scheduled for groups. Individuals can take the online Ask, Listen, Refer training The training takes about 20 minutes and includes sample conversations modeling how to reach out to students showing warning signs for suicide. More information on CMHS or any of their services can be found on their website, https://counseling.uconn.edu.