There has bee a big push in the last several years at Queen’s to raise awareness of mental health issues. One key component, however, is still getting those who need help in the hands of mental health professionals. Whether we’re a TF or TA, one of our roles as graduate students is to interact with undergraduates, and we can play a part in helping them access services. At Gradifying, we’ve been writing about education and teaching for the last number of weeks. This post is going to explore a role of educators that isn’t in our contract, but a role that you may want to know more about – helping students connect with mental health services.
Identifying Students in Need
It’s hard to know the difference between whether someone is tired or depressed/anxious just by looking at him or her. Someone could be having a bad day, or they could be experiencing some significant personal difficulties that exceed their ability to cope. Here are a few signs that a student may be unable to cope:
Change in academic performance: A student who was doing fine at one point and then starts missing deadlines, or there is deterioration in the quality of work.
Change in behaviour: In a class that involves participation, a student who was once active becomes largely silent. The reverse can also happen – a student becomes aggressive or outwardly irritable.
Change in hygiene or dress: A student who presents as significantly more unkept (e.g., not brushing hair; smells unshowered) than before.
Absent: A student who used to be showing up for class and has stopped attending.
See Something Say Something?
Not all students who show some of these signs are experiencing mental health issues that they’re unable to cope with, but it may be the case that they are. I generally take the view that it never hurts to ask – worst-case scenario is that they’re having a bit of a rough time, but they know how to work through it. But an approach to a student (or anyone you’re concerned about, for that matter) can be most effective when it incorporates a few important aspects:
Caring: Let the person know what you’ve noticed, and ask if there’s any way that you can help. The second part is more important than the first.
Compassionate: This means something different to different people. Some would advocate for giving extensions or making accommodations, and some would advocate for holding them responsible (i.e., everyone should be held to the same standards, and there should always be consequences for not doing the work). If someone is depressed and anxious to the point that they have stopped submitting work or preparing for tests, then that person is unlikely to get caught up without a boost. Personally, I believe that if giving a break helps a student get back on track, then that’s a-okay with me. I’ve been given a break before, and I’m guessing every reader here has been as well. It didn’t turn me into a person who takes advantage of others’ good will, it just helped me get through a tough time. If you are willing to provide an extension, let the student know.
Listen: If the person is interested in talking about it, be ready to listen to their reasons without judging or criticizing.
Support: You may not know the thing to say that is going to help this person, and I think it’s good to be honest about that. But you can let him or her know that you’re willing to help them get back on track in the course, and you can direct them toward resources that may be helpful, such as the ones below.
This link provides an extensive list of resources that can be passed on to a student that you have identified as in need.
Often times someone will want to seek help, but aren’t ready to make an appointment and step into a counsellor’s office. The SWS has developed some truly excellent self-help workbooks that are available online and can be downloaded. They have good information about common undergraduate issues and mental illness, and lots of techniques and exercises for alleviating distress.