I am many things: the president of Mount Allison’s Sociology Society, a dance teacher, and a passionate learner. I am also a student living with anxiety and depression. As a firm believer in the value of learning from others’ lived experience, I think that we ought to take more time to listen closely to one another. Based on my own experiences as well as an initiative I ran last year through a anti-stigma mental health group that asked students to list practical ways their professors supported them in times of distress, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions for professors on how to support students with mental illness. The list is not complete or representative of every mental illness, nor do I claim to even begin to understand the challenges involved in being a professor. These are simply ideas borne from students like myself, eager for professors to better understand our experiences.
First day of classes
The first day of class presents an easy opportunity to establish your belief in and understanding of mental illness, thereby ensuring that students struggling with it feel safe and accounted for. Encourage students to be open about their mental illness if they can, and gently remind them that it is academically productive to talk to you if their troubles are interfering with their schoolwork. Designate the classroom as a safe space, and make it clear that you won’t tolerate offensive opinions and hate speech, such as homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc. Ensure your syllabus acknowledges the presence of on-campus resources for mental illnesses and other disabilities and encourages students to seek help when they need it.
For example, Dr. Dryden, a professor at Mount Allison, adds the following into each of her syllabi: “Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make the course more accessible to you, or if there is anything that it is useful for me to know about your learning style or life circumstances which may affect your performance in the course (I don’t want to be nosy – just a heads up is useful!). The course is intended to be challenging, but the structure of the course itself should not be a barrier to your learning.”
If possible, use trigger warnings. I know they are contentious, but keep in mind you are helping prevent a student from having a potentially painful public experience.
There are many alternative ways of assessing participation. Students with anxiety may be afraid of speaking up, and students dealing with depression simply may not be able to get out of bed to make it to class. A professor of mine uses participation e-mails instead. By 3 p.m. the day before her class, students are encouraged to submit three comments or questions about the next day’s readings. As a bonus, this encourages students to start their readings early.
If certain parts of a reading are especially important, try to highlight them before assigning the reading to the class. Sometimes I look at long readings and get overwhelmed, but if I knew which parts to begin with, I could ease my way into the reading and circumvent this anxiety.
Professors should communicate to students that they are safe people – and occupy safe places – with whom and in which to discuss mental illness. One way they demonstrate this at my university is through Mood Disorders Society of Canada’s Elephant in the Room campaign. Professors place small plastic elephants in offices to signal they are open to talking about mental illness.
Some students may be worried about visiting you outside of office hours. You can address this by posting your office hours on your door, or even by adding a schedule detailing what you are doing inside your office so that they do not feel as disruptive.
Remind your students to take breaks – a message we rarely hear in academia. I leave the following anonymous note from a professor open on my computer at all times: “Dear students, just so you know, I think you’re all awesome. You brighten my day … and I love how you all try so hard. Maybe not always in my course, but I know you’re also busy changing the world, taking care of your family and friends, and learning how to cook and get the laundry done. Take care. Don’t stress out.”
I’ve heard professors say they don’t give extensions out of concern for fairness, or because they worry the student’s assignments will be pushed too close together. However it is important to remember that students are the experts on their own lives, and know when they can and cannot cope. Extensions allow students to focus on recuperating, healing and self-care, making them more prepared to not only tackle the next assignment, but actually learn from it. It takes courage and strength to recognize when you need extra help. Remember that asking for an extension by e-mail is just as valid as asking for one in person.
Some students may not be able to come and ask you face-to-face. Giving an extension without asking any questions about the nature of the student’s problems shows that you respect that the student knows their limits as well as allows them to maintain their privacy. Providing the whole class with an extension once you’ve noticed students are struggling with a deadline also covers the students who are unable to disclose their mental illness, or do not feel entitled to ask for an extension. You can also provide a set number of free extension days for all students to use throughout the course as they see fit.
Not every form of support takes significant time or energy. Taking note of the things students did well on their assignment can help ease the guilt and anxiety they might feel if they didn’t live up to their own expectations. Assigning essay proposals helps students prone to procrastination – such as students struggling with perfectionism and anxiety – begin to develop their arguments, giving them something to fall back on lest this anxiety keep them from writing later on. Remind students it is okay to show you work that is incomplete or in progress.
When giving assignments back, it is always helpful to put them into perspective, particularly in an academic culture where the self often gets equated to productivity and worth gets conflated with work. One of my professors once said, upon handing back assignments, “These marks shouldn’t make you sad but they shouldn’t make you happy either. They are just a reflection of where you are in your learning right now.”
Student in distress
If you are in your office and feel comfortable doing so, offer to close the door. This may make the student feel more comfortable and inclined to talk. Give the student options as they may be unable to articulate what they need or want. Ask if they want to leave and come back later, stay and talk, or write down what they’re thinking on a piece of paper. I find the best question to ask when someone is in distress is, “What can I do right now that’s going to make you feel better?”
Keeping in mind that it can be worrisome for students to hear their professors are concerned about them, if you feel comfortable, recommend they seek help from on-campus health and wellness services. Communicate to the student they are not a burden, be patient, and give them time to calm down before beginning to ask them questions. If the student discloses mental illness, thank them for their trust and courage. It is not easy to open up about feelings and personal problems in academia.
Afterwards, keeping confidentiality in mind, try to follow-up with the student. Most of all, know that many students will not come and see you when they are struggling. If you receive an e-mail saying they have personal struggles, trust that they are dealing with distress. Professors should not require doctors’ notes verifying mental illness. Panic attacks, mania, or a bout of depression do not wait until the one-day a week a doctor is on campus.
All of the time
Announce mental health-related events on campus to your class when you hear about them. If you can, attend an educational seminar like safeTalk, ASIST or Mental Health First Aid to learn about how to identify warning signs of mental illness and how to refer students to local services. As a professor, advocate for better mental health services at your university. Extensive waitlists and limited services are widely recognized as being formidable barriers to students getting the support that they need. Most of all, do your best to see the potential in your students and build them up. We admire our professors so much. Validation and encouragement from you helps us keep going.
Professors have a job far more difficult than I could possibly imagine. Ultimately, simply listening carefully and being non-judgemental already shows you care. Academia does not exist in a vacuum, and students are more than just vessels of learning. We are all human and vulnerable to mental illness. We are also all at university to learn. Sometimes we just need a little bit of extra help to make it happen.
Caroline Anne Kovesi is a fourth-year sociology student at Mount Allison University.
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