Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist, and Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

We Are Not Prepared for Students in Distress

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When students break down in tears in your office and share their anguish, how are you supposed to respond?

Most faculty aren’t trained to deal with students experiencing emotional distress, so befuddlement is an understandable reaction, as @DrMellivora noted in a post she wrote — “I’m Your Professor, Not Your Therapist!” — for the academic blog Tenure, She Wrote. She wondered what you should do: “Politely ignore? Offer Kleenex? Ask details?” When students shared their more serious psychiatric crises with her, she felt, rightfully, unprepared: “Should I have reached out sooner, to find out why he wasn’t turning assignments in? This doesn’t really seem like something you should learn through trial and error!”

“It’s kind of sad,” @DrMellivora wrote, “that I spent so many years preparing for the mechanics of a position like this, and yet have no idea what to do in these emotional situations that have the potential to have real, long-term impacts on students.” She’s a good educator, and she’s concerned.

Her confusion about how to react in these situations is not unusual. After all, professors in fields outside of psychiatric caregiving are not trained to give psychiatric care. Why should she have known what to do? As the title to her post suggests, this work is not her job.

But as educators, we are on the front lines of students’ mental-health issues, and we are often called upon, in the heat of the moment, to listen to what may be shocking revelations from our students — about their mental health, trauma, or both. And if you are a graduate teaching assistant or an adjunct, often teaching lower-level classes and small sections, you are more likely to receive such revelations, as you might be the only instructor who knows a student’s name.

These days, our students appear to be even more at risk of a mental-health crisis. A recent study by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that nearly 10 percent of college freshmen in 2013 reported feeling depressed “frequently,” compared with 2009, when only 6.1 percent did. The consequence, according to the research, is “that students with lower levels of emotional health wind up being less satisfied with college and struggle to develop a sense of belonging on campus, even after four years of college.” Given the high likelihood that you will encounter a student in distress, and that you aren’t a trained expert in counseling, what should you do?

To help us out, I spoke with Ruth Ann McKinney, who is trained in both law and counseling, and is a clinical professor of law emeritus and a former assistant dean at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Here is her advice.

Be Gentle with Yourself

McKinney recognizes that faculty members are often unprepared to deal with the surprise of a student in distress. For academics, being unprepared can feel unsettling. We just don’t like it, in part because we aren’t used to it. "Often, as faculty members,” she said, “we are geared toward interacting with students on an intellectual basis. We are eager and ready for a cognitive discussion of the subject matter of our courses. But when a student expresses strong emotions of any kind in our office, it often catches us off guard.” And being caught off guard can make us even less willing to listen: "Few people like to be surprised in any social interaction, and being surprised by a student who becomes emotional (veering away from the cognitive, which we more often expect) is no exception. It is, at best, disconcerting. At worst, it can be alarming.”

Although you should ensure that a student leaves your office safely, you can set boundaries. "As an adult in the student's environment, and as a concerned educator,” McKinney said, “you probably have a moral responsibility to assess how big a crisis the student is in and to make sure that the student is safe.” But ensuring a student’s safety does not require that you sacrifice your own mental health: "You don't have to solve the student's problems, and you don't have to be the only one who gets in on the discussion. Also, you don't ever have to pursue a conversation that you are not comfortable pursuing."

Indeed, McKinney said, it is OK if “you are a person who is not comfortable with other people's feelings, or if you don't have time to deal with an emotional situation right now.” You just need to communicate that to the student: "Tell the student that in as nonjudgmental and kind a way as you can.”

McKinney provided some perfectly acceptable language you might use in this case: "I can see that you are in a very tough situation and I appreciate your sharing your feelings with me. It is understandable that you are upset. I am not very good at handling strong feelings, but I know someone who would be a better listener than me. I'm going to give X a call now and see if we can walk down to his office together."

Be gentle with yourself. If you are thrown by a student’s outburst or emotional outpour, that is OK. Everyone has different strengths. Don’t beat yourself up. Just know who to ask for help. Which leads us to her next piece of advice.

Know Who to Ask for Help

"Every wise educator should anticipate that, at some point, he or she will have a student who is emotionally distraught in the educator's office,” McKinney said. “The smart thing to do is to have a strategy in place for situations that go beyond what you know your tolerance for emotional discussions to be.” If you know that your tolerance is low, you need to have some numbers on your office speed dial.

Before the semester starts, McKinney suggests, figure out who that contact should be. Then, “drop by that person's office and introduce (or reintroduce) yourself and confirm how that person would like you to handle a situation involving a student who is upset in your office.” That way you have plans in place when an emergency arises, and don’t have to come up with something on the fly.

Furthermore, you need to know just when to dial that number. "We teach people, not automatons,” McKinney said. “People have emotions. As educators, we are sometimes in a position to help students grow in healthy ways at a crossroads in their lives.” However, she added: “We are not therapists, we are not the police, we are not family, and we need to recognize our limitations.” When you hit your limits, use that phone number.

Mind the Red Flags

Red flag moments are the ones where you definitely need to ask for help. McKinney listed some of the most important ones to watch out for:

  • Psychological distress: "Do not try to make a psychological assessment if a situation looks remotely odd to you. Instead, tell the student you care about him or her enough to make sure he or she gets the help needed to find happiness. Then make the referral you rehearsed ahead of time to the right person in your educational environment.”
  • Confidentiality: "Do not get lured into promising confidentiality from the get-go. If a student says, 'May I tell you something in confidence?’ Respond (immediately, and warmly and kindly): 'It sounds like you have something important on your mind. I would be honored to listen (that is, only if you would be; but if you're not a good listener, say so at this point and refer the student to someone who is), but I can't promise confidentiality. If what you tell me puts you or someone else in danger, then out of concern for you, we will need to involve someone who can help.’"
  • Isolation: “Do not get involved in emotional discussions alone with a student at a time when your building is not well occupied. Instead, make the referral quickly and early, or ask the student to come back tomorrow."
  • Suicide: "Do not be afraid to ask the suicide question. If a student seems extraordinarily upset or depressed, you can and should ask, 'You sound overwhelmed and exhausted. Have you had thoughts about suicide?' You will not put the idea in the student's head. Most (but not all) suicidal individuals will answer honestly. Also, follow your instincts. If you remain concerned, make the referral in a genuine and compassionate way."


Most important, McKinney notes, “Do not make a student feel guilty or inadequate for having showed emotions in your office. We are all human.”

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