How Can Professors Help Students with Mental Health Concerns?

This post was co-written with clinical psychology graduate student and Jedi Counsel podcast co-host, Brandon Saxton.

Disclaimer: Policies, procedures, and resources vary by university, so it’s important to check with your own university and to defer to those over our recommendations.mental-2470926_960_720

In the early 1900s, faculty and staff at Princeton University noticed that several students were dropping out of school due to mental health problems. They sought to prevent this by creating the first campus mental health program in 1910. Since then, it has become standard practice to offer counseling along with physical health services on college campuses. For a fascinating overview of this history, we recommend reading this Kraft (2011) article. Here’s a sample excerpt:

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Professors often serve as an initial contact for students with mental health concerns. Some students are unaware of the available resources and reach out to professors to point them in the right direction, while others feel more comfortable checking in with a professor before seeking help from someone they don’t know.

We’ll start with some general guidelines for assisting students when they approach you for help:

  1. Listen to and assess the nature of the problem in a nonjudgmental fashion. Asking about mental health is typically beneficial for people experiencing problems and does not generally have a detrimental effect on people who aren’t experiencing them (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
  2. Respond with compassion and acknowledge their concerns. This can provide a sense of hope and validation.
  3. Refer them to appropriate services for their needs (more on this below). When in doubt, choose the services that seem most fitting. If it turns out that the student doesn’t need services or requires a different resource, the specialists at the initial referral source will know how to best proceed.

To expand on step #3, we have listed some of the most common scenarios below:

Worry about mental health symptoms: We usually start with recommending the on-campus counseling services for students. Depending on a variety of factors (e.g., the severity of the problem, their insurance coverage), they may also be interested in off-campus recommendations. We typically give them the link for the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website to find therapists who use scientifically-informed practices. If you or the student are unsure about whether the student’s issues warrant intervention, you can assure them that the first step in mental health care is to undergo an evaluation to answer that question and then formulate a plan based on the findings. If they are reluctant to go to the counseling center, we will sometimes offer to walk over there with them or tell them that we understand and that those services will be available when they are ready. If appropriate, we also provide students with information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Displaying unusual/worrisome behavior: If a student is exhibiting odd or potentially harmful behavior (e.g., their assignments have violent or suicidal content, they are showing up to class intoxicated, they seem disoriented), then you can typically contact a Behavioral Intervention Team on your campus for guidance. Behavioral Intervention Teams are composed of individuals who represent different components of the campus community (e.g., residence life, student affairs, faculty, law enforcement, counseling center, etc.) and provide consultation, advice, and follow-up with students who need it.

Class accommodations request: Sometimes, students will ask for accommodations without the required formal paperwork. In these cases, it’s important to refer the student to the campus counseling center or the disabilities office, so that they can go through a formal assessment process rather than leaving it up to your own discretion. If students tell us about a life circumstance that affected their ability to complete an assignment, and it’s a one- or two-time incident, we’ll typically allow them to make up the work. However, when the request is more long-term in nature or requiring special accommodations that may be unfair to other students, it’s important to defer to the experts in the disabilities office to make the decisions.

Harassment/discrimination: If a student tells you that they have experienced harassment or discrimination, you should take time to listen attentively, sympathize, and then refer them to the office that handles Title IX issues. We strongly recommend visiting your university website for that office, so that you are familiar with the most up-to-date mandated reporting guidelines and the processes for filing complaints. Here again, if you are unsure whether something rises to the level of harassment or discrimination, it’s important (and sometimes mandated) that you report it to the appropriate office so that they can use their specialized training to make a determination (rather than your own judgment).

In summary, we recommend expressing that you care while also recognizing your boundaries as a professor. You should not act as their therapist, but you can help by connecting them with one. Professors have the power to create an educational environment that reduces mental health stigma and increases students’ willingness to seek help when they need it. We try to communicate this to students by showing that we welcome their questions, providing them with mental health resource information in class, announcing mental health-related community events, and treating such topics with care. As a testament to the positive influence a professor can have through these strategies, look at this letter that Dr. Jeffrey Cohen received from one of his students (thanks to Rob Gordon for sharing it).

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions, concerns, or corrections. We’ll conclude by linking to two informative articles and our podcast episode on the topic, which goes into more detail. Thank you for reading!

  1. Graduate Students Need More Mental Health Support, New Study Highlights by Elisabeth Pain
  2. The Myth of the Ever-More Fragile College Student by Jesse Singal

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