Supporting Students in Distress

Michigan Diag during winter

As we move into winter term, with its mix of intense academic demands and challenging weather, it's a good time for instructors to prepare to respond or reach out to students experiencing mental health challenges. Whether they are grappling with anxiety, depression, or other sorts of distress, students' mental heath struggles often become apparent to teachers when they take a toll on their academic work. And students in distress sometimes turn to teachers for help because they see them as their most immediate support network.

As U-M’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) states in their guide for instructors on Helping Students in Distress, "your role can be a positive and crucial one in identifying students who are in distress and assisting them in finding the appropriate resources." 

What should you do if you know or suspect a student is in need of your assistance? Detailed guidance can be found in the CAPS guide above or at the University's Mental Health Resources webpage for faculty and staff. In general they recommend, if a student comes to you, that you listen attentively and without judgment. You can help the student develop an action plan for addressing their main concerns, especially with coursework, but remember that it's not your role or responsibility to provide professional help for students facing mental health challenges. You can support students by referring them to relevant campus resources. Depending on the circumstances, these might include:

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CAPs recommends that, when making a referral, teachers remind students that campus counseling resources are free and confidential. Instructors can also challenge stigmas around seeking counseling by reassuring students that asking for help is a sign of strength. CAPS offers additional online guidance and resources on their website.

Sometimes students do not come to you, but you suspect they need extra support. This might be because you notice a sudden decline in the quality of their academic work, a pattern of absences from a student who had previously attended class regularly, or notably changed modes of interaction with you or peers in class. If you feel a need to reach out to a student, be sure to talk to the student privately, focus on specific behaviors that you're concerned about, and encourage the student to seek help. Here are some additional quick tips from CAPS for reaching out. 

If you’re concerned about a student, you can also activate a collaborative network of support by reaching out to the student’s academic advisor. LSA instructors can use this link to send both your student and their advisor a progress report, as a way of demonstrating your concern and beginning a broader conversation about the support a student might need to succeed in your course and beyond. 

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