Professors aren’t trained to handle mental health issues — we’re not even good at handling our own. We’re under stress, we’re loners, we’re kinda weird. But many students share their personal problems with us, and we have some power to make a difference. I’m not an expert, but I’ve had a lot of great coaches, mentors, and therapists. In case it might be helpful for you, here’s what I do.
I try to help students handle their problems and feelings by listening, normalizing, and reflecting back their best self.
Listening is hard, because professors are used to talking and we don’t have a lot of time. Advice is quicker and comes naturally — and students are often asking for advice. But for their personal situations, listening is more helpful than advising. And they probably won’t take your advice anyway. So listen to their situation, ask what they’re thinking of doing, and only then ask, “Have you thought about…?” (Chances are, they have.) Ask what you can do to help. And if a student is in an awful situation, like the death of a close relative, don’t make them make up the homework. Don’t try to make things “fair.” Use your power to be unfairly forgiving.
Normalizing is showing your student their problems and feelings are normal. Which means they’re not alone. As professors, we’re in a unique position to be able to normalize for students, because we’ve had the second-hand experience of many other students over the years. We know students who were in similar situations, and we know how those played out. Graduation is coming and they have no job? That’s normal. It might take 6 more months. And it’s not slacker students who don’t find jobs, it’s students who are career-switching, or need visas, or who have high standards or specific desires. Panicked on the PhD job market? It’s normal. Lots of crying is normal. It sucks, it’s awful, and it’s normal.
Normalizing doesn’t solve problems, it just helps students live with them. And you can normalize by sharing your problems and experiences too. I’ve been depressed, divorced, gone to therapy, done bad things, doubted myself, lost loved ones, and freaked out. All normal. When you’re a role model in a position of power, it’s easy for students to imagine you’re different and special. You know you’re not — let them know.
Reflecting back their best self is telling students how you see them, in a positive way. As someone who’s hard working and smart, who cares about others. Who has ambition and the potential for great success. As a person with integrity. Who’s committed to truth, forging their own path. Who loves deeply. Whatever you can say that’s positive and true. Anyone can do this for anyone, but it will mean even more coming from you, their professor.
Those are my three core strategies. And here are two notes about time, since you don’t have a lot of time and neither do I.
First, you do NOT need to counsel students individually to do all these things. When I teach, I rarely meet privately with students but I hold an open office hour once a week. We have a group discussion addressing each person’s concerns in order. People bring up extremely personal things and individual grading questions during these open sessions. The beautiful thing is that in a group led by you, students do the things I’ve described for each other. They listen, they normalize — and can share their own experiences, and when you reflect someone’s best self, the others agree and reinforce that positive self-image.
Second, if the listening isn’t necessary, you can just send a quick email that can make a world of difference. Maybe you heard the news from someone else or they wrote about it in a course assignment. Let them know you know and you care, do some normalizing, and, if you use the open office hour strategy, invite them to that.
When I was a doctoral student, two doctoral students I knew died by suicide. That broke my heart. And in one case, his kind professors were sued by the family for not doing enough. So I take student mental health very seriously. I’m not presenting these strategies as suicide-prevention strategies, or as the best strategies, they’re just some of the ways we can help our students feel better. It’s not our job, but it’s in our power. We can let them know they’re loved, and their problems are normal.