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In-The-Moment Responses to Mental Health Challenges

Mon Mar 11, 2024 at 07:30 AM

Building a culture of well-being in your courses can go a long way in helping students navigate if not avoid challenges that tax their mental health. Even with all the right conditions and preparation, moments of struggle will arise gradually or all at once and unexpectedly. To be a supportive listener when a student or colleague expresses a distressing moment, these in-the-moment responses can be a helpful starting point.

In-the-Moment Responses

These responses can apply to a range of struggles students may express, whether directly to mental health, managing temporary stress, or a different life struggle that taxes their mental health. 

“I appreciate you letting me know.”

A simple acknowledgment and affirmation of what someone has disclosed counteracts stigma while not assuming counseling responsibilities. Take disclosure as a sign of the person wanting to address and work through the issue rather than making excuses. Listen non-judgmentally, as often people just want to be heard rather than for you to fix the problem. Acknowledge that life conditions are learning conditions, and that our holistic wellbeing affects our academic work. 

“Here’s how I can help.”

Define for students which flexibility measures may help them take care of themselves while continuing with course work, such as extra days to turn in work, meeting with the student again to check in, or whatever you can do within the scope of your teaching work and boundaries.

“There are a lot of helpful, free resources on campus, including counseling support.”

Normalize the use of campus services as something successful students take advantage of to reinforce the message that asking for help shows strength, not weakness. Specific support may be helpful depending on the situation. 

Share that students can take advantage of support groups offered by the Counseling Center to learn more about mental health, from managing anxiety to building social skills. If the student expresses interest in one-on-one counseling sessions, Director David Schwartz welcomes a “warm handoff,” which consists of emailing Dr. Schwartz, cc’ing the student, and briefly introducing the student to Dr. Schwartz who, from there, will follow up with the student separately. 

It helps to be able to point students to relevant information in the syllabus such as mental health and academic support so they can revisit recommendations after your conversation.

“Let’s make a plan.”

When stressful situations tax our bandwidth, it can be difficult to make an actionable plan. By working with students on a short-term, simple next steps, you exercise compassionate challenge (Cavanagh, 2023): empathizing with them while also communicating agency and resiliency. The list can be as simple as what course work you recommend they prioritize and whom to reach out to for more information (e.g., ask your academic adviser about drop, withdraw, repeat options).

Conclusion: Call on Others, Especially in Alarming Cases

While people may confide in us about private matters that they wish to remain confidential, in some cases disclosure is mandatory, such as in cases of sexual harassment or assault. If something feels terrible and unsettling about what you have heard, reach out to the OU Police Department at (248) 370-3331. In cases below immediate danger and safety, report a concern or consult with the Dean of Students.

References and Resources 

Select resources from Supporting Student Mental Health: Teaching Resources.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, associate director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Ideas inspired by OU colleagues during the January 2023 discussion “Student Mental Health: Faculty on the Front Line.” Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NCView all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, and LinkedIn.