Every lecturer or student counsellor will one day come across a student who doesn't seem to be doing very well. In some cases, the student is truly in crisis, causing you to be concerned for their safety or the safety of others. It’s not always easy to decide on the best course of action. In this ECHO Teaching Tip, we provide some tools for recognising and dealing with crisis situations. Above all, remember that there's an appropriate response to virtually any situation. You risk doing the most harm by doing nothing.
Is a crisis imminent?
Sometimes the writing's on the wall, but you can also be caught completely off guard. So always try to be mindful of three types of signals:
When there's a change in the academic performance of an otherwise motivated and constructive student, something may be wrong. Red flags include absenteeism, missed deadlines or appointments, lower quality of assignments, and/or frequently asking for exceptions or extensions. Students may also communicate more or less explicitly about serious problems, for example by writing an essay about suicide, or by mentioning feelings of loneliness or unhappiness during an exam.
It's difficult to say what exactly 'normal' student behaviour is. Nevertheless, 'abnormal' behaviour can sometimes be noticeable. A student who suddenly reacts in a very anxious, aggressive or irritable manner, or who suddenly appears very gloomy, may be having difficulties. Not responding to questions or emails from a lecturer, or no longer participating in group work or interactive assignments, can also point to a crisis.
Physical signals are difficult to pick up, especially if there's little face-to-face contact. However, you might notice that a student is exhausted and possibly heading for a burnout. Signs such as slurred speech or a blank stare are good reasons to check whether something might be wrong with the student. If you notice that a student has lost a lot of weight or has visible cuts, burns or bruises, you should definitely take action.
What to do if you believe a student is having difficulties
Conversation with a student in crisis
First, think about the best way to have this conversation. Live interaction (on-campus, video call, phone call, instant messaging) is preferable to email, because you can respond to each other much more quickly.
Start off by indicating that you're concerned. Avoid bombarding the student with personal questions; it's not an interrogation. Above all, try to listen carefully and refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Stay calm and acknowledge the feelings and concerns expressed by the student. Discuss the channels available for professional help (general practitioner, psychologist, student counsellor, etc.).
Also be mindful of yourself throughout the whole process: how are you, can you handle this, what are your own limits? If you have any questions or concerns of your own, it's a good idea to talk about them with others.
Crisis situations are very rare and it's difficult to provide blanket guidelines on how to act. After all, by their very nature, crises are unpredictable. The important thing is that you do something. In any crisis situation, it's crucial to ensure your own safety and that of others.
Note that only healthcare professionals (doctors, psychologists, etc.) are bound to professional secrecy. And even then, professional secrecy can be broken when someone puts themselves or others in mortal danger. So don't promise confidentiality if a student confides in you. Always take great care not to break the trust the student places in you, by discussing together what steps need to be taken and who you're going to involve.
After the crisis is over, it may help to talk to your colleagues, a confidential advisor or someone from the Health & Safety Department about what happened.
Proper help requires proper boundaries: don't hesitate to refer the student to a specialist if you don't have the right skills or knowledge.
In the event of a referral, it's important to discuss the options for further help together, and to help the student to decide on the alternatives that are available.
Be confident and resolute about the need for a referral. If you appear ambivalent or uncertain, the person being referred will pick up on that. Be open and transparent in your communication. A referral may provoke feelings of rejection, so it's important not only to be honest about the reason or need for the referral, but also to explain that a referral is not a bad thing, and perfectly normal. Leave some room for the student to express feelings or doubts about the referral.
Don't take over responsibility from the student: try to encourage them to make their own appointments with the service or person you're referring them to. Of course you can point them in the right direction by providing contact details.
If you told the student that you'd contact them after they consulted the person or service you referred them to, it's important that you do that. If you don't, they'll start to wonder why you haven't reached out to them: I'm not important enough, it's too big a problem, it's too trivial, they didn't really care, they just forgot about me… and so on.