A few years ago, a student came to my class looking distraught. “I don’t think I can be in class today,” the student told me.
No explanation, no details. Still, I knew from our previous conversations that this student suffered from anxiety and that the previous weeks had been quite overwhelming for her. I allowed the student to leave the class. When I contacted her later that day, she said she was feeling much better, but was just stressed out about everything on her plate.
This conversation took place in 2016. Rates of mental health problems had already increased. From 2012 to 2018, for example, the number of self-reported suicide attempts more than doubled among undergraduates.
Since then — in large part because of the pandemic — college leaders have expressed heightened concern for student mental health. In September 2020, 61% of college presidents in public four-year institutions identified student mental health as a major concern. A year later, this figure jumped to 71%.
As a doctoral candidate in the sociology of mental health, I have long been concerned about the high rates of mental illness and general distress among students. Based on my review of recent scholarship on these issues – with guidance from mental health practitioners who work in a collegiate setting – I have developed a set of best practices for instructors and others who want to see students flourish.
Here are five practices that emerged from my research.
1. Signal support in the program and in the classroom
The program is one of the first opportunities for instructors to demonstrate their openness and commitment to student mental health. Although many universities now require instructors to describe campus resources and accommodations available for students with disabilities, it may also be helpful to include additional language about mental health.
At the very least, instructors can provide information about the student counseling center, including location, contact information, and number of free appointments, if any. For students in online courses, be sure to specify what counseling services are available off-campus and how to access them.
Instructors can also signal their support in class. During difficult times, such as midterms and finals, consider saying something like, “I know this is a stressful time. Please contact us if you feel like you are falling behind or just want to talk. I would also like to remind you of the free services available at the Student Advice Centre. Such statements not only show empathy, but also guide students to essential resources.
2. Identify students at risk
A study from the Boston University School of Public Health found that 71% of teachers would appreciate some kind of checklist to help them identify students in emotional distress.
Although the warning signs may differ from student to student, a some key indicators to look for include: a sudden drop in academic performance; repeated absences from class; lack of response to sensitization; and changes in weight, grooming, or personality.
3. Question, persuade, refer
If you encounter a student in psychological distress, consider using the well-established “QPR” protocol: question, persuade, refer. Although not developed for a college population, the QPR has been shown to be effective in a college setting, leading to “increased suicide prevention knowledge, attitudes and skills.” Even when students’ mental health issues do not pose a suicidal risk, instructors can rely on the QPR framework or a related approach, such as the validate-assess-refer approach by the association Active Minds.
First, ask the student gently raising your concerns after class, during office hours or by e-mail. Professor David Gooblar of the University of Iowa, sharing advice he received from the school’s Director of Counseling Services, writing: “You can say, hey, you seem a little quirky these days. Is everything okay?” If things aren’t going well, persuade the student to seek treatment and refer them to the college’s counseling centre. If you are concerned that your student may be suicidal, ask directly, “Are you considering suicide? Many people think that asking this question exacerbate suicidal thoughts, but that’s a myth; rather, it can help at-risk students get the help they need.
Ask your college counseling center if there are opportunities to receive formal training, such as Applied training in suicide intervention techniquesknown as ASIST.
4. Address real-world issues and events
Students do not live in a vacuum. Events such as the murder of george floyd and the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans have been associated with mental health problems in Black and Asian American or Pacific Islander students, respectively. As Active Minds recommendsgive students the opportunity to share their thoughts whenever “a major event has occurred on campus, in the community, or nationally that you suspect might be on students’ minds” .
5. Don’t forget your own sanity
More … than 1 out of 5 teachers said in a 2021 survey that caring for students’ mental health is taxing them themselves. Instructor burnout is a serious concern that requires an institutional response. In the meantime, personal care may require set limits with students to protect their own well-being. Instructors can also take advantage of existing campus resources, such as their employee assistance program.
As instructors and community members mobilize college leaders to devote more resources to mental health, college instructors would do well to be prepared for times when a student reaches out with suicidal thoughts, the onset of major depression or the trauma of a sexual assault. Instructors can also take proactive steps to address mental health more broadly, including directing students to the resources they need before such issues arise.
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Max Coleman does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license.