I’m your professor, not your therapist!

One of the things that I’ve found I’m completely unprepared for as a new teacher and academic advisor is the level of emotion the students bring with them to talk with me.  I’m just not a public crier, so it always startles me when someone lets the waterworks go during what seems to me to be a relatively benign conversation.  Not that I never empty a box of Kleenex while watching a tearjerker with a group of friends, or think that crying in front of others makes you weak – it’s just not me. This has left me at a loss for what to do when someone breaks down in my office.  Politely ignore?  Offer Kleenex?  Ask details?  I should have paid better attention when friends talked about their experiences being the crier or the cryee! 

It took me awhile (basically the third time the same girl cried) to realize that with some students intense displays of emotion isn’t really a big deal – or at least not a sign of something really wrong with the person or my class.  The first time she cried I was upset about it for days – was I being too strict? Were the assignments too long?  Were my expectations too high?  But nobody else complained, and by the second and third time I realized that was just her.  Even so, it was an awkward situation. And I still felt bad every time.

More troublesome, though, is when students come to my office and have more serious issues – either long term mental health issues or current serious crises.  I was a little befuddled when my ‘mentor’ told me that if a student seemed to need real ‘help’ I should offer to take them over to psychiatric services – as if that was a common occurrence.  I’ve only been here three months and I’ve had to offer once already.  I have rarely felt so powerless as when an advisee started quietly sobbing because he had never really recovered from a traumatic tragic event two years before, and as a result might not graduate.  I had NO idea what to do.  Or when a student failing two classes (including mine) admitted three quarters of the way through the semester that he hadn’t been doing any work because his sibling is on their deathbed.  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!

I know that I’m not trained as a therapist (and certainly do not want to be) but there has to be a middle ground between that and completely shutting down and not listening/talking at all to a student in need.  At the very least I need to come up with some survival mechanisms so that I don’t feel like utter crap each time someone with a real problem brings it to me.  It’s kind of sad 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.

What do you do when a student breaks down in your office? Do you have different strategies for different types of situations?  How do you balance being a fair teacher and an advisor, while also being compassionate?

47 thoughts on “I’m your professor, not your therapist!

  1. The crying b/c of mental health issues just happened in my office! And I had no tissues (I try to keep my personal use of disposable paper products to a minimum, and have never really been a tissue purchaser). Here was my stream of thought: “should I hug her? that seems like the right thing to do but the door is closed and I don’t want to do something that might be inappropriate. Crap. The right thing to do would be to offer her tissues. Note to self: buy tissues. Hmmmm… how should I deal with this?”. I ended telling her that it was a good idea that she was going home, not to worry about missing the quiz, we could figure things out when she gets back to campus (when that will be, I don’t know!). Then I checked her grade and sent her an email saying that she should be really proud of how she did on the midterm (an A without a curve), and to take care of herself.

    They definitely don’t teach you how to deal with this type of stuff when you’re getting your training at the beginning of the year! I think all you can do is offer a tissue (once you buy a box!) and do whatever is reasonable, given the situation.

    • yes. I think you handled this well. Good idea to have tissues, the handing over of the box is a gesture of warmth in itself. But practically, most people have tissues or a hanky in their pocket don’t they? Other than that, I think this is a good approach – affirm what the student is doing (if it is appropriate to affirm) and in any case offer to make alternative arrangements.

      You can’t be a counsellor or therapist, and it is OK to say so, in fact i think it should be stated, but you can make practical arrangements within your class so that it is one less thing the student has to worry about in a time of crisis.

      On referrals – I have never walked a student to the counsellor or chaplain or disabilities adviser or whatever, but I have frequently made a phone call to make an appointment, with the student standing right beside me. I would never do this without the student there, or without discussing it first with the student. (Sometimes the chaplains are available when there is a long line to see counsellors, and sometimes their more informal approach is better for the situation – don’t discard this idea, they do not ask about religion in a crisis, they really don’t)

  2. Such a great article and so pertinent. Thank you.
    In reply to your questions:
    I’ve had students break down in my class. As a TA I was told that all issues should be referred to their personal advisors, but after hearing how little was actually done after referral to help the students I only did so if I could not help myself.
    I figured that they see me more than their do their personal tutor. I am their first point of access and our weekly interactions placed me in a better position to notice if something went wrong.
    The strategy I used was that of changing hats: the teacher hat for class, the advisor hat for office hour, the listener-analyst for crises.
    It may seem strange that I should call on the analyst persona for emotional situations, but I have learnt that this is the strategy that works best.
    I became a mirror for students in which they could reflect their problems. That gave me some emotional detachment, which is useful as a coping mechanism, but it also meant that I could be there for them.
    All I did was try to get them to think through the issue by speaking about it. I never offered solutions, but rather always tried to help them reach a conclusion themselves.
    Most people only need someone to listen, and show some empathy, and they are always better off coming to their own solutions than being given those from the outside.
    I am not a trained therapist, but I do think that training those in the profession might actually be a lot of help. It would give one the tool set to deal with the kind of situations you describe.
    I have attended the Introductory Course in Psychoanalysis at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London as part of my PhD research. I did so on my own account, wanting to be thorough, but I do think that what I have learnt there has also helped me in the classroom.
    I hope this is useful. Please let me know if there is anything else you would like me to add to this.
    Warm Regards,

  3. Helping students in distress is a huge issue, particularly for young women faculty who are often perceived as more sympathetic to problems. Thus, they tend to see more tears. The most important thing is to realize that you as the prof are (almost always) not responsible for the problems. Don’t feel responsible. Anything you do to help is a positive influence, even if it is to hand the student off to someone who is more appropriate for helping them. Thus, the most important thing is to avoid “shoulding” on yourself by focusing on what you might have done differently. Rather, focus on what can be done going forward, by you and, most importantly, others whose job it is to help.

    To figure out what to do, the first thing is to try to understand the issue: 1) Is the problem something related to you or your actions? For example, did you unintentionally say something offensive in class or change a deadline that caused a hardship, etc. If the issue is related to something you did, you can choose to apologize, make an adjustment, or explain your position.

    2) Is the problem a short-term personal issue for the student? If it is something like failing classes because of a sick family member, you can choose to offer a solution for your course (maybe offer an incomplete) or direct the student to an academic advisor who will know the options for dealing with multiple classes, temporarily withdrawing, etc. Most colleges and universities have web resources that describe where students should go for issues like this. Having a link handy can be helpful.

    3) Is the problem one of harassment? The worst tears I’ve seen were related to a sexual harassment issue, one that occurred in the field with a harasser I didn’t know and who was not associated with my university. I chose to spend hours talking to the student, helping her recognize that the circumstances were in no way her fault. In many cases, professors have a legal requirement to report harassment in the workplace. It is very important to know what procedures you are required to follow, and to also to make sure the person harassed has an appropriate mentor (who may or may not be you) to help them recognize that they are not responsible for others’ bad behavior. Always show the student respect, including respect for their privacy where possible.

    4) Is the problem a mental condition that needs professional help? In this case, the student will be better off if you refer them to professional services; it is their responsibility to follow through. If there is any question of violence or disruption for other students, it is a good idea to talk with the student mental health services to alert them to the issue. They are there to both help disturbed students and to help the university community at large. I have helped a disturbed student get through our degree program, but only after working with various people on campus to understand the context. It is extremely difficult, and I don’t recommend getting involved with something like this unless you have a very good reason to do so and you have help.

    5) Is the student using tears to try to manipulate you? Unfortunately, this does happen, and it can be hard to identify. In my opinion, it is best to resist all manipulation of this sort, for the student’s sake. However, don’t feel guilty if you don’t recognize it right away. Some students are experts.

    • Thanks, these are great points. Honestly I hadn’t even thought about manipulation (not that I think any of the situations I’ve dealt with so far are that).

      I agree that is it important to not shoulder the blame, and that’s easy enough for students in my classes. However, I am the academic advisor for 15 students (not ideal my first semester), so it feels as if I am part of the system that failed them!

      • I might suggest that assigning a new professor as academic advisor for 15 students their first semester implies that the system could use some revision. Clearly, they can’t expect you to give expert advice to those students since you are also new to campus. I highly recommend finding a more senior professor who is a respected academic advisor to act as a mentor. This person can be outside your department; they just need to be someone whose opinion you respect who can provide practical advice on campus resources. To find one, try asking around among your colleagues and more senior students. An e-mail out of the blue offering a cup of coffee in exchange for some mentoring advice is often warmly received.

  4. I’ve had students who have come to me with issues surrounding domestic violence, homelessness, PTSD, serious medical issues, etc. I have to say, my background as an attorney has helped in my ability to listen. In most cases, the people just wants to be heard.

    In those situations where it goes deeper, meaning, they are seeking a solution, I do help them find what assistance they need. I don’t tell them what they should do, but steer the conversation so that the student sees the solution. I also follow up with the student, just to let them know that I do care about their well-being.

  5. We have spent a semester on our campus talking about mental health for our Great Debate topic. It has raised my awareness about mental health issues, anxiety and stress among college students. Through the Great Debate, I met one of our Counselors from our Wellness Center and she has been an incredible resource. I would suggest calling your own Counseling and Wellness Center or Health Center and seeing if they have resources to offer faculty for dealing with students, early intervention when students seem to be struggling and dealing with crisis situations. I feel much better equipped just from a couple of informative sessions that I attended with the counselor leading it – and those were for students (one in my class which was really helpful and one in a leadership institute I am working with on campus). I do think there is STARTING to be more outreach, but our counseling center is currently understaffed by three counselors, so they are all so busy, doing the outreach becomes secondary to helping students. I think it is important to advocate for the outreach though.

    • This is a great idea- I should find out more about what services are available on campus, so I know where to send the students. This seems like something that should have been covered during orientation!!

      • yes it should have been covered at orientation – for staff and for students – either for the staff to use if necessary, or to be able to refer students to the right place at the right time.

        Another point, I found it helpful when I knew one of the counsellors and one of the disability advisers and one of the student admin people personally – you can always ask them for advice about something, how you can help students or something – it is much easier to ask for someone by name, or to give a name to a student, and it is easier to do this if they know who you are.

  6. I’ve been a TA for Intro Biology for several semesters so luckily I have a teaching supervisor that is very helpful in figuring out what to do for students with problems. This semester I’ve had several students dealing with various sorts of personal crises. If a student is dealing with something major and their grades are falling in several classes, it would probably be best to send them to their academic counselor (as well as a mental health counselor if applicable); the academic counselor can help the student jettison classes or take incompletes so that their GPA isn’t completely destroyed. Even if the student thinks they can pull through the semester, it is best if they meet with the counselor so the counselor is aware of the situation and can take swifter action if necessary. I also have a student that deals with stress by crying. The first two times this happened during lab I was very disconcerted, so I talked to her. She said not to worry, it wasn’t personal, its just what she does. So, now I just make sure there are tissues in the lab and in my office.

  7. Full disclosure: I’m the one who cries.

    It only happens when I’m speaking an uncomfortable emotional truth, but that can range from, ‘OMG I’m sorry I stepped on your foot’ to ‘I need a week’s extension on this paper, because my Mom just died and I find I can’t actually write a complete paragraph yet.’

    In a long and mainly happy life, I have learned to wave off the offers of help or sympathy. When I feel myself tearing up, I’m likely now to say something like, “I’m going to cry, and it’s no problem – don’t let it bother you.” And then I go ahead and say whatever it is.

    By all means, keep tissues in your office. Leave them prominently out on the corner of a desk or somewhere that your visitor can reach without asking. But don’t offer them – some of us receive an offered tissue as a request to please shut up now.

    Listening is good. Reflecting back what I said is good. If I choke up and stumble, saying “That’s okay, take your time” is good, and will probably free me to speak.

    Mostly: don’t interpret every crying student as one who needs mental-health counseling. Tears are just closer to the surface for some of us, that’s all. The most genuinely certifiable psychotic I ever met was completely unable to cry.

    • Thanks for the tip about the tissues- now I know where I’ll put the box; once I buy it! In my most recent situation, the student has just told me that she tried to commit suicide…. so it was a pretty serious issue. And I did tear up as well. She explained that she was getting counseling and the counselor has suggested that she come talk to me about making arrangements since she’d be missing lab/ and a weekly quiz.

    • What excellent advice, maggiebea! Especially this: “If I choke up and stumble, saying “That’s okay, take your time” is good, and will probably free me to speak.” And also this: “Mostly: don’t interpret every crying student as one who needs mental-health counseling. Tears are just closer to the surface for some of us, that’s all.”

  8. It is interesting to me that most of the comments are about helping the students in distress. I read the initial blog entry as a faculty member asking for help with dealing with students, e.g. the faculty member as the person who needs support.

    Young faculty have a very tough job, particularly women and minorities, who are often expected to provide excessive emotional support for students, to represent all of their gender/ethnic group, and generally be all things to all people all of the time. Dealing with distressed students is very emotionally draining, particularly if you feel responsible for helping them. New faculty are trying to balance teaching, setting up a research program, publishing papers, advising research students, performing assigned service, being a present member of their family, and maintaining their own mental health. When a distressed student is added to the mix, it can be very disruptive to the faculty member. Although helping the student is important, a new faculty member needs to put the situation into a broader perspective. They have to maintain their own balance, and if dealing with students throws them off for days, it doesn’t serve the larger good. A professor can best help thousands of students over decades if they find a balance that is sustainable.

    It is okay to not be effective at helping students in distress; some people just aren’t. It is good to learn how to be effective within your own personal limits. If you can learn to accept those limits and not feel guilty, you can do more good for more students. With time, you can identify those situations in which you can really make a difference, sometimes helping students transform their lives for the better. You don’t get that opportunity if you burn out early from taking on problems you can’t effectively deal with.

    • Thanks for this – I am struggling with balancing my advisees’ emotional needs on top of my own, at a time when I’m barely keeping up with the most basic requirements of my job (i.e., prepping new classes and required service). I think I need to see this as another thing to work on – something that will become easier over time, and something I just need to be ‘good enough’ at for now, for my sanity.

  9. I’m a teacher in a further education college (similar to community colleges) and my students bridge the gap between the final two years of high school and the first two years of college. During our teacher training we did some work on transactional analysis (parent-adult-child for the uninitiated), but very little on how to actually counsel a student through problems. As one of the youngest members of staff, and probably helped by my rather “unique” look, I’m almost always the one the students come to. I don’t know whether anything I’m doing is right, but it seems to help, so here are my experiences.

    What do you do when a student breaks down in your office?
    Most frequently they break down in my teaching lab (our staffroom is a shared office) after class. I get them sitting down at a bench and offer them a tissue (or more likely a paper towel from the dispenser), then I let them get it out of their system and take a few deep breaths. Then they’re ready to continue the discussion. If it’s not related to their performance on my course, then I try to help them talk through their situation, listening to what they’re saying and asking questions if I think their answer might help them work through it all. Sometimes I know I can offer an appropriate solution, but if I can’t, then I always refer to our welfare officer and/or on-site counsellors. Problems related to the course or their performance are quite different, and I’ll talk about them when I answer the third question.

    Do you have different strategies for different types of situations?
    I’ve tried to think about whether I do have different strategies or not. There’s little difference in how I treat male and female students (and I’ve probably dealt with as many young men crying as young women). In all cases I make sure we are both visible through my door and the lights are on. My overwhelming instinct is to offer them a hug, and this can be a divisive issue between teaching staff – to hug or not to hug? I just ask them if they need a hug – I never hug without permission. However, there are some situations where it’s clear the student wants to reach out for some solutions (and then I try to suggest options and talk the student through making pros and cons for each one), and some where they want to just have someone listen and make sympathetic noises, or someone to sit there in silence with them. I wish there was a magic formula for working out when to do each one.

    How do you balance being a fair teacher and an advisor, while also being compassionate?
    I set the ground rules first right at the start of the year. I tell them what my expectations are, and I tell them that if there is anything going on that will affect their ability to meet my expectations then they need to come and talk to me – effectively I invite these interactions. Ideally I get older students to come and talk to the new class and reiterate the importance of communication. If a student royally stuffs up a test, and is devastated, then I go through in detail where they went wrong and set them some targets for things they can do to improve on the next piece of work. Sometimes I’ve had to tell students that their performance has been inadequate and they have to be transferred to a different pathway (e.g. from academic to vocational). Where possible I try to have the likely progression route mapped out so they can see what they can still achieve.

    The vast majority of the issues I deal with are personal ones, though, and predominantly it comes down to listening, comforting (if requested) and offering possible routes to a solution. Hope that helps – I’m aware that my role has some fundamental differences to that of a university professor, and what works for me may not be appropriate for all situations.

  10. In another life, The Geeky Gardener teaches undergraduate journalism. I’m constantly amazed by what some of my students go through outside class that affects their performance at uni – caring for sick family members, picking up the pieces when their parents divorce, their own chronic health issues etc. It makes me appreciate my own good fortune as an undergrad and causes me to reflect on how I would have coped in similar circumstances. The way I deal with consultations like these is to encourage students to talk, letting them know that they can stop at any time if they feel uncomfortable. I point out their options (whether it’s about assignments, student counselling, special consideration etc) then often follow up wth an email, as it’s often a lot for them to take in verbally and it usually gives them time to consider their options. I then try to check in with them verbally, or encourage them to come and see me again in a few weeks, keeping an eye on them in the meantime. It helps that I tutor most of the students I lecture and as I teach senior years, know most of the students already. Do I take their problems home with me? Less than I used to. But some do creep into my heart. I just can’t be a teacher robot. I don’t think I could be a truly effective teacher/mentor without showing my humanity once in a while.

  11. Julia makes an important point – make your expectations clear from the very first class. I also used to invite students to talk to me about problems that might affect their performance – as soon as possible. And I would emphasise this after a couple of weeks. I could always make alternative arrangements or come to some compromise if I knew there was a problem during the semester (or, there was plenty of time to make an appointment with a counsellor if that was needed). I could *hardly ever* help them practically if they came to me 2 weeks before the final exam to tell me that there had been a problem for many weeks. And all my TAs would emphasise this.

    In large classes, I also tried to maintain a cohesive team with my TAs, and was fortunate to have good communication with them. I told them they were my eyes and ears and they often alerted me to a potential problem (student dropping grades or not attending pracs after doing well, or even some worrying change in behaviour). I could then ask the student to make an appointment with me, and we would go through the grades/pracs/whatever, and that was often enough to encourage them to open up with an ‘outside’ problem they were having.

    It is an excellent idea to ask a senior student to come to talk to a new class – maybe more informally in a lab session, if you have them.

    However, I tried never to offer solutions. Maybe I suggested alternative strategies sometimes and asked the student if any of these were possible (eg it may seem obvious to you that the student should move out of the shared apartment, but that may not be at all possible for the student, at least in the short term, for a whole host of reasons). In any case, I thought ‘offering solutions’ was crossing the line between academic and therapist. It is OK to ask the student to think of different solutions, once they have calmed down and taken two breaths.

    The other awkward thing is this: I could rarely stay back after class because I had to collect kids, or have other domestic duties, and I had very long commute times. This was before the time of mobile phones, I guess it is easier now to make a call to reassure people you are OK and make arrangements if you think you will be late, but in my day it was very difficult to do.

  12. I haven’t had that happen to me yet as cryee, but as crier, yes. I found out a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver earlier that day. Now, when I get bad news, it usually takes a few hours of processing time before I react – that’s just how I work. People are all, “She seems to be handling it well…” until I break down later when it hits me. Plus, this was the first time in my life someone very close to me had died, so I had no idea that I should go home and email the prof and that she really wouldn’t mind. Complicating this is the fact that I’m also mildly autistic, so I have a very hard time figuring out what others will think of stuff I do or what others want of me, and I was worried the prof would be angry with me for missing the meeting (of course, now I know that “death of a friend” is basically a universally-accepted reason for being a no-call no-show).

    So that’s what happened there. I went to the prof’s office to meet about a midterm I’d done somewhat poorly on by my standards and I couldn’t see why I’d been marked down on a couple of the questions (and I had no idea whether it was just a my-handwriting-is-atrocious issue). It all hit me there. It was really quite embarrassing for me while it happened because I’m normally not at all a public crier, either. I apologized quite profusely to her both in email and in person the next week.

    Given my experience: If the student sounds like they’re dealing with mental illness or some huge stressor (death of a friend, dying relative, etc), referring them to the campus counseling service (f you have one) is not only appropriate, but helpful. You are not a therapist or a grief counselor, and only the most unreasonable of students would expect you to be. But, if you refer them to someone who is, you can help get them back on their emotional feet as soon as possible, and that’s good for both of you.

    • @ishemgeek thanks for sharing that very personal experience. it is sometimes hard to share these feelings, but it always helps to know what people are feeling from the other side of the desk so that Professor’s have more information about the best way to help.

  13. Thank you– this is very timely for me, as I have just had four incidents (two students) recently. My response is to be compassionate and allow students to cry– I pass them the kleenex and reassure them that’s it ok to cry. I have done it once or twice as a student, so I don’t want the student to feel stigmatized. I avoid delving into their issues and only know what they offer me. When I had the same student burst into tears twice, without knowing what her issues were (but knowing something else was going on aside from just assignment anxiety) I had a quiet chat with her and encouraged her to make use of the various services at school which might be relevant to her. With another student, who had missed some class due to a recent death, I talked with her once she was back to class to see how she was doing in my class and others in the department–make sure she was plugged into the right supports. She was very open about her experience and I found her thoughtful insights encouraging, especially when we fall into the trap of thinking students don’t care. Sometimes it is just the stress and anxiety at this time of the semester, sometimes it’s something more that’s making them cry. I don’t encourage students to confide in me (I only know what they volunteer), and I don’t usually hug students.

  14. Reblogged this on A Loveliness of Ladybirds and commented:
    This is very timely for me! This semester I have had several students in tears repeatedly. For very good reasons, but tears nonetheless. I’m their TA, not their friend, but I do care about my students as people. I want to be supportive and compassionate, but I do not want to take on the emotional burden of strangers’ tears. I want to keep my emotional energy for those I care about– my close friends and family. Lots of good thoughts here, and the comments are definitely worth reading!

  15. Thanks for your post, I’m pretty sure it happens to me more frequently than others as I’m one of the few women in the department… It may sound a bit trite, but I often offer chocolate or a biscuit, a cup of tea when it’s taking the student longer to settle down. If it’s just emotions running high or stress, the sugar hit and a brief break while eating help, if it’s more serious, then the sharing of food often helps them to settle down as well (not too uncommon that they haven’t eaten much for a while, either). More widely, our university has a pretty good spectrum of services on offer, so beyond establishing what the problem is initially and acting as advocate until it’s ended up in the right (more qualified) hands, I can usually avoid getting too involved. I agree with earlier comments – it does get better with experience, not in the least because I learned who can help with what.

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  17. Hi — let me say that I am speaking from both sides of the issue as a professor for eighteen years who has seen a lot of this and as the mother of a college junior who suffers from depression (and is being treated by professionals for that). You are perceived as a person of wisdom, who is in a more mature place than their friends but in a less emotional place than their parents (sometimes reflecting a poor parental relationship or a tough situation — the student with the dying sibling might have been temporarily cut loose a bit by parents who have so many other worries that they can’t think clearly about the one who is NOT ill). You have to determine a) your relationship with this student, entirely by your gut — some I feel comfortable talking to about personal matters and some I don’t. b) the student’s intentions, as best you can — I have a running conversation with one who is always telling me how sick she is but which has been revealed by the length of time it has happened that this is just her normal way of getting out of things. c) you have to make clear to them that legally there is only so much you can do, and then DO make that call with their permission, offer to talk to a parent, whatever. (This also clears out those who are bluffing). You are NOT, however, a parent or therapist. Sometimes a conversation with the chair or the counseling center/chaplain will reveal that the student has ongoing problems — you can’t know the specifics sometimes, but those folks need to know that the person is not coming to the right channels for whatever they need. Many of them are needy, and some others are led to the conclusion that their poor grades or performance are a result of anything other than a lack of effort or participation on their part. It’s those folks that you need to weed out of your concern. My son has alerted some of his professors but is loathe to do so; usually only when he has to miss class because of an evaluation or appointment. I am in conversation with one professor. It’s tough on this end too if there is a real problem; I would like the assistance of those folks but certainly do not expect them to replace me.

  18. I’ve come across this issue many times, especially since I often teach intro classes with many first-year students. (I’m a tenure-track lecturer at an R-1 university in the western US.) I agree with many of the earlier comments about listening. It is very important, as Dawn wrote before, to understand the issue. But recognize that (for most of us) we are not trained therapists. We ARE, however, very possibly the first point of contact for students seeking help for problems that extend beyond our course, or the first to notice indications that a student needs help.

    I always make sure to have a box of tissues in my office. (And chocolate.) Know what resources are available on campus for you and your students: academic support, violence response and prevention, counseling services, academic advising, experienced colleagues, etc. Annually, our campus distributes fliers to all faculty with information about how to recognize students in distress with appropriate resources and contact information. The Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs has been an invaluable resource on our campus in helping students that need to take a leave of absence, and can coordinate with the student’s professors. I’ve developed contacts with various advisers, counselors, tutoring coordinators, etc. on campus so that I can guide students to the best help available.

    Regardless of a student’s problems, I always voice my belief in a their ability to overcome their difficulties and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For students that have academic issues (or self-confidence issues related to their academics), I feel comfortable sharing advice if they ask. For students that I believe would benefit from counseling services but seem hesitant to go, I feel comfortable sharing (without going into details) that having a trained guide help me through issues has been invaluable to me. In first-year classes, I will periodically reinforce that my office hours are available. I’ve found that students that come in for help in the last week of the term can benefit from a pep talk rather a lecture on how they needed to come in earlier; I actually refer to those last weeks as cheer leading season.

    In my STEM field, many of the academic problems deal with a lack of confidence. With all my students–especially the young women, first-generation college students, and other underrepresented students–encouraging them will never be time wasted. Simple acts such as a smile, acknowledgement of good work, or remembering their name can be very meaningful for at-risk students. Being a resources concierge, so to speak, allows me to help support my students emotionally while maintaining my role as their professor.

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  20. I found this post very interesting as I always wondered how professors dealt with all the emotion that comes along with being mentor to a bunch of students.
    I am returning to University to do a masters degree after some time in the workforce. (I’m 30) I also deal with bipolar disorder. I never brought up my ‘condition’ to my employer, but used some of the workplace benefits to cover things like psychiatrist, and drug costs.
    My p-doc is pushing me to let all my profs know about my mental health from the get go this time around. I do not think it necessary, I can deal with the anxiety and moods that come with being bipolar, and I don’t want to be seen as looking for sympathy/ a get out of jail for free card.
    If a student who you have never met before comes into your office, and lets you know they have an ongoing mental health condition, does this leave you with a negative/biased impression of them?

    • Hi mmiller, I definitely was not left with a negative or biased impression of students that have come to me to say that they are suffering from clinical depression, suicidal, etc. I just want to do what’s best for them. But the reason they told me was because it was affecting their performance (one student was asking for my signature on a withdraw form; the other was asking if she could take a quiz from home b/c she wanted/needed to visit her parents after a suicide attempt. I thanked them for sharing with me, and of course was very sympathetic to their situation.

      However….. in your case, my opinion would be that you don’t tell your professors unless it is somehow impeding your performance in their class. My sister is bipolar. And she definitely has not told her employer for the reason you mentioned: fear of negative/biased impression by those that know of her condition. And it doesn’t affect her ability to do work, so why should she tell them, anyways? I imagine that you know how to deal with bipolar by this point…..if you don’t feel like sharing it with your professors; don’t do it! Definitely don’t do it because your p-doc is telling you too. It’s completely a personal choice and you should do what you think is in your own best interests.

      Best of luck in graduate school!

  21. *Definitely don’t do it because your p-doc is telling you TO. Not TOO! Geez…. so many hours in the office this weekend I can’t even get my words right.

  22. Pingback: Students are people, too: When you’re the professor and the therapist and the career counselor… | rogue cheerios

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  26. I feel slightly odd commenting on an old post, but I’m seeking advice.
    I’m a student (undergrad, female, 20). I’m depressed/anxious. It’s been affecting my academics, but I’ve never confided in a professor. However, I’m starting my work on my Honors thesis, and my Honors adviser just told me that if I don’t take a break, I’m going to burn myself out. I’m seeing a counselor and a psychiatrist, and I feel like I ought to let my thesis adviser know what she said and what my problems are so that I can have support.
    My problem is that while we’re close, we never discuss personal things. Still, I know that he takes on a lot, more than he can really ever handle. He doesn’t make time for himself or to take care of himself, and I feel like I’m going to come off as a slacker if I try to make my mental health a priority. But mostly I don’t know how to tell him.

    • Some advice from a prof? You don’t have to give any details. You can just say that you need to take a break for medical reasons, without going into details. Or, you can ask if they have any advice for how to develop a sustainable workload. It’s also helpful to have multiple mentors, and not to just rely on one person for advice. Good luck! I hope you find some relief with therapy. It’s okay to compartmentalize. Conversely, you could try telling your advisor — they may relate to what you say, and have some good advice. If they don’t react well, they may not be a good fit for you anyway.

  27. I’m also seeking advice on this topic and am a female undergrad. I have an amiable relationship with my academic advisor (she knows about my depression because I wrote about it in a paper for her class my freshman year, not because I confided in her or asked for advice or accommodations). Now, a year later, I’ve realized that part of the reason I was so depressed was because I was dealing (and still am) with coming to terms with my sexual orientation. She has implied before that she identifies within the queer community, and she is the only adult I know that is “out” (if you can call insinuation out). Anyway, I think talking to an adult who has their life (semi) figured out about coming out and how that would affect my academic career here (I go to a Catholic school) and how she’s dealt with prejudice and that sort of thing would be helpful. But I’m embarrassed to bring it up since it’s such a personal issue and I don’t want it to be uncomfortable for either of us or to cross any boundaries. Thoughts from profs?

    • Perhaps to avoid awkwardness you could talk about your situation and then say “do you know anyone in a similar situation I could talk to?”. That would give them the opportunity to ‘out’ themselves to you, or perhaps they actually do know someone they could direct you to. If they don’t take the bait or just refer you to a general service like your mental health office then you would know they weren’t open to talking about it. Of course, this does require you to talk about yourself first to put it out there, which I know is hard. However, I think it needs to start from you because no (good) advisor would start a conservation that in any way touched on sexuality.

      What ever you decide this is definitely not something you should talk about over email – some Catholic schools are very strict about the lifestyles their professors lead.

  28. Hello,
    I too am a female undergrad, but I’m having problems academically due to a number of factors at home and general mental health issues. My professor has told me I probably shouldn’t continue to pursue a PhD due to my poor grades- which hurts a lot, as it is something I’ve always wanted to do. I know she doesn’t think I’m smart enough, or that I have lack of aptitude, which is easily conclusive due to poor grades; but when it seems like somebody you see as such a significant figure doesn’t believe in you, the feelings of inadequacy really start to kick in. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I feel almost suicidal. I’m in love with my course and there is nothing else I could truly see myself studying. I want to pursue a PhD so badly; however I’m not too naive, I’m aware they’re not all fun and games and are extremely intense.
    Taking my professors advice would mean giving up on my dreams, I was wondering if anyone had any advice on what I should do?

    • Hi Alice, I’m sorry that you’re going through a rough time, and I hope you get well soon.

      I’d suggest that you take what your prof said with a grain of salt. I have colleagues who have done poorly in undergrad but still ended up being successful profs at our school. I also have another well-respected colleague who, at one point, actually got kicked out from university for having received such poor grades. But in the end, they got back on track and things worked out well for them (they did have to work for things, of course).

      Although it’s healthy to be realistic about your goals, don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone has their ups and downs. Profs are humans too… many of us were far from perfect undergrads.

      I think it’s wonderful that you’re passionate about your field, and it’s good that you’re aware that getting a PhD isn’t “all fun and games.” Performing poorly in school due to mental health issues doesn’t mean you’re “not smart enough” or “lack aptitude.” It just means that you’re human.

      Adversities (like what you’re going through now) can always be made into a strength. Wherever there are challenges, there are lessons and wisdom to be learned.

      You can always put effort into a problem but you can’t always rush a solution. Feel what you need to feel and do what you need to do/ go through what you need to go through… but remember self-compassion, perseverance, and good attitude.

      Lastly, know that you’re valuable beyond any successes or failures. I’d like you to take care of yourself and not harm yourself. Don’t give up on your dreams!🙂

      I wish you all the best, and I hope you get this message.

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